How do we learn to pray? Prayer is not an innate skill. Although you might argue that we are born with a desire to communicate with our Creator, even the disciples of Jesus had to ask him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). He responded with what various Christians call the Lord’s Prayer, the Model Prayer, or the “Our Father” or Paternoster. So we must learn how to pray.
Some of us may have learned to pray as the disciples did. Someone intentionally taught us to pray and provided a template for us to use as we began, much as a small child learns to ride a bicycle that has training wheels attached. A parent or grandparent may teach the child a poem of prayer or simple requests to God to say before eating a meal or before falling asleep. The teacher may even say the words along with the child as he or she learns to pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep…” Such prayers introduce the idea that a spiritual being, God, cares about us and has the power to protect us. As Jesus taught about prayer, he spoke about the relationship between pride and humility when praying, as well as about the importance of perseverance.
We also learn to pray by watching and listening. Whether at a family meal or in a worship assembly, we acquire impressions about proper posture, wording, and focus during prayer by observing others. Perhaps, in your family, everyone held hands and repeated the same words for your prayer at each meal. Or, each one folded their hands and bowed his or her head with eyes shut as one person prayed on behalf of the group. I vividly remember while a small child learning from my grandmother not to look around the auditorium while someone else prayed during a worship service. I glanced upward and saw her looking sternly at me. She shook her head and closed her eyes. I quickly bowed my head and closed my eyes, too. In some worship settings, people kneel while praying. In moments of great sorrow or shock, we may even lie on the ground prostrate as we speak or cry to the Lord (see the description of David as he prayed on behalf of dying son in 2 Samuel 12). At meals and in worship services, we hear phrases repeated and concepts stressed. We notice patterns like praying for the recovery of the sick or asking for wisdom to be given to political leaders or that the preacher will remember what he has prepared (sometimes even when preaching from a manuscript. We learn those patterns and phrases; we repeat them later when we pray in similar settings. Because many grew up hearing prayers offered extemporaneously without notes, they may assume reading a prayer is inappropriate or even wrong in worship. Others grew up hearing and reading printed prayers; those prayers come to their mind when praying.
We learn to pray by reading the prayers of other believers. The Bible has within it many prayers that were offered through the centuries by people who sought to follow God. Some of those prayers, especially those in the Psalms, obviously were meant to be used either in public worship or personal prayer. Others describe how the person thought about God, what faith and obedience meant to them and affected how they spoke to him. Biblical prayers of lament and imprecation startle us, because in some church cultures we have shied away from such harsh and sorrowful expression in public prayer. Other biblical prayers model how to confess sin or how to praise God. This blog studies these biblical prayers in hope that that they will deepen our understanding of our God, increase our faith, and yes, teach us to pray. The Call for Fire Seminar Facebook page posts excerpts from biblical prayers as well as quotes about prayer. Notice that these biblical prayers were written. Prayer does not lose authenticity just because it is written down or read. However, what emerges from these prayers is that prayer that God hears is rooted in faith, or at the least, desire to believe. Within many of my blog posts I also include my own prayer written along the line of thought from the biblical prayer. As we read prayers by others, we may notice that their words are what we want desperately to say to God ourselves.
I encourage you to learn to pray, and to think about what you are going to say when you speak to the Creator of the universe. During my military career, I had to speak to officers or civilian leaders who outranked me significantly. It was essential for me to prepare beforehand what I would say. As a child, I learned that requests made to my parents, whose love I never doubted, were heard better when I thought about why I wanted what I asked. When we speak to our God, our heavenly father, we likewise should know what we plan to say and why we need to say it then. I invite you to learn along with me in this Call for Fire Seminar.