A recent conversation with students at a local Christian preparatory school focused on prayer, what is real prayer, and how real prayer moves us closer to God
What is prayer?
“What is prayer?” The question rang in my own heart as I prepared to speak, so I did a little digging and learned something in a fresh way. The word translated as “pray” comes from two root words, one of which indicates direction or moving toward. (Matthew 6:9)
Simply put, prayer is a conversation with God that moves us toward Him or allows us to draw closer.
This distinction is more important than you might think. If the words we’re saying are prayer, they move us closer to God. I believe the converse is also true.
If the words we say don’t move us closer to God, they aren’t real prayer.
Even a written, ritualized prayer can move us toward God if the words have meaning to us. The longest, most beautiful set of words, directed at the listener or designed to impress God will not move His heart. To be prayer, our words must be heartfelt, meaningful, and said (whether aloud or in our hearts) with the intent of interaction with God.
Jesus gave a clear example of the difference between true and false prayer with His story of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer. (Luke 18:9-14) The Pharisee offered a lengthy “prayer,” updating God on his good deeds. It wasn’t prayed with an expectation of a response from God. It was a field report and simply praised himself.
The tax-gatherer, on the other hand, saw himself as sinful and begged for mercy. This man’s words were heartfelt and meaningful. They exalted God and not himself; they drew him closer to his Heavenly Father.
The tax-gatherer prayed to God. The religious professional did not.
What do our words say to God?
If you’re like me, not everything you’ve ever prayed brought you closer to God.
Take a look at these examples and just for yourself. Have you prayed like this before? I have. You decide which is the kind of prayer God wants to hear and which isn’t.
- “Did you see what she did, God? You need to deal with her.” OR “I took offense at her action, and I have a haughty, angry attitude. Forgive me.”
- “I don’t want to love that wretched person and I’m not doing it.” OR “I don’t know how to love this person who keeps doing such horrible things. Show me Your way.”
- “Did you see all I did for you this week, Lord?” OR “You have done so much for me, Lord. I can never do enough for you, but I thank you for your kindness and mercy to me.”
There’s a difference, isn’t there?
Selah. Pause and consider this truth for a few moments.
Does our prayer draw us closer to God?
God is omniscient. He knows everything. He hears all the prayers we utter, genuine or not. I envision God responding to Pharisee prayers by listening to them for a moment, turning to Jesus, shaking His holy head, and saying, “He’s just talking to himself, not us.”
In response to the prayers of the tax-gatherer and the Pharisee, only one man left his prayer time justified. It wasn’t the man with the fancy words. Only the man who beat his chest in repentance found favor with God and received an answer to his prayer.
Jesus was clear. Haughty words get us nowhere with God. We can demand, insist, and tout our worthiness all we want. Is it the kind of speech that moves God’s heart? No.
Five Elements of Real Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:7-13 offers five key elements to real prayer if we want to move closer to God. They serve as a model for intercession, as well as for life.
- Offer thanksgiving and praise to God for His mercy, love, and kindness — not praise for our own accomplishments and goodness.
- Seek God’s way – not our own. When there’s a disparity between the two, pursue the holy path.
- Be content and grateful for all God gives. Live simply. Daily bread does not leave a big balance in a bank account.
- Forgive promptly, regardless of the offense.
- Pursue righteousness with God’s help, especially when temptation threatens.
If we approach Him with words full of gratitude, surrender, forgiveness, and desire for righteousness, we will draw closer to God. If our life is filled with those attributes, we will be a house of prayer. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
A place to start
The prayer of the tax-gatherer was only seven words long. Neither eloquence nor loquacity impresses God. He prefers sincerity, humility, and gratitude. Today, let’s approach our Heavenly Father with the same gentle, loving spirit we cherish in our children.
The seven-word prayer is a good place to start.
“God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”
In colloquial language, the tax-gatherer begged, “Don’t give me what I deserve, Lord, even though I’m the worst sinner in the room.” It’s a great place to start as we spend time with our Heavenly Father today.
“But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified…” Luke 18:13-14a
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