Praying as I Ought

Last week’s gospel reading got me thinking about prayer. For those of you who do not enjoy the gifts of what we affectionately call the three-year lectionary, we received the account from Mark 10:32-45 when Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to Him with a simple request: They wanted Jesus to make them great. They asked Jesus to allow them to sit as his vice-regents when He comes into His glory, one on His right side and the other on His left. That is quite the prayer!

It reminded me of an old debate I heard about prayer. The debate was over whether or not we should pray pre-written prayers. One side said these types of prayers were fine. They are generally informed by scripture and keep you focused. The other side said such prayers were inauthentic. Prayers should be from the heart, authentic and sincere expressions of what you think and feel to God. Heartfelt cries. Pre-written prayers, so the argument goes, cannot be authentic because someone else wrote them. You need to express yourself to God with your own emotions, feelings, etc.

Now, the whole discussion is rather absurd. The whole point of prayer is not our feeble attempts at speaking to God, be they pre-written or emoted. Rather, the main thing in prayer is the promise of God’s listening ear, the promise of an audience with the Father purchased through the blood of Christ. It is not how sincere or focused I am in praying, but how sincere and focused God is in listening! Remember that incredible verse from Exodus 2:24-25 when Israel is suffering under the oppressive hand of Pharaoh and they cry out for mercy. Moses writes, “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” God heard, God remembered, God saw, God knew. God was dialed in. The beautiful part of prayer is not the cries of the people, but the grace of the Father bending His ear to the earth to listen to His beloved children.

Now, this is incredible news. Especially because, as the aforementioned debate indicates, we focus far too much on the nature of our prayer and not enough on God’s ear. Especially when we start emphasizing the importance of spontaneous or heartfelt prayers. Now, I’m not going to suggest that we should not pray “from the heart” or be honest with God in our prayers. If we learn anything from the (pre-written) Psalms, it is that prayer is the place to be honest with God. However, to think that somehow a prayer from the heart is more sanctified than a prayer found in a hymnal is to grossly misunderstand the nature of our hearts, the thing that Jeremiah reminds us is deceitful above all else (Jeremiah 17:9).

Look again at the sons of Zebedee and their prayer request for greatness. It strikes me that this is an honest prayer, straight from the heart. Their heart’s desire is to be great according to the standards of the world. They want to have worldly glory with Jesus. When they pray “Thy kingdom come” they are asking for that kingdom to include their interests, desires, hopes, dreams, and personal aspirations. They are asking for a kingdom in which they have power, wealth, influence, and importance. A secure home in a gated community with a job that has an invincible retirement plan. Straight from the heart.

It struck me how much they sound like me in my prayers, “Teacher, we want for you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” On first glance, I read this and say, “The audacity!” But, then I realize, this is my heartfelt attitude when I pray too. I want God to do everything I ask of Him. No. Demand of Him. My heart’s desire is to have, well, get my heart’s desire! I pray that God’s will would be done…so long as it is in line with my will!

I’ve been a Christian since I was baptized as an infant. So, that’s nearly 41 years to the day of this posting. And, I haven’t gotten my heart to pray pure prayers that sound too different from those of the disciples. I want God to do what I want, to work for me, to make my life successful, comfortable, and happy. How wonderful that God hears my prayers and responds, “You do not know what you are asking.” As Paul writes, I do not know how to pray as I ought (Romans 8:26). Like the disciples, my prayers are tainted by my heart that, though redeemed by the blood of Christ, still battles the taint of sin.

God, however, is greater than our hearts. (1 John 3:20). He listens to our prayers, no matter how heartfelt or pre-written, and answers them according to His will for our good. What a joy to realize that God knows what I need even before I ask (Matthew 6:8). And, I hope, after, I ask as well. He knows what I need is not what my heart desires, but a new heart. He knows I need forgiveness, mercy, and love. He knows I need to die daily and be raised to a new life. He knows I need Jesus. So, in response to my simultaneously sinful and sanctified prayers, He gives me Jesus. And gives Jesus to you too. Jesus, who perfectly and sinlessly prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34) Make no mistake, the cross was not the end of Jesus’ prayers for you. He lives ever to intercede for you before God (Hebrews 7:25). The true joy of prayer is not pouring your heart out to God, but Jesus Christ the Righteous One pleading on your behalf.

What’s more, He now has granted you access to the Father so that you need not fear praying in His presence. Jesus, having washed you clean in His blood and purified you in baptism, welcomes you into the presence of His Father who now gladly hears your prayers (John 16:23, Hebrews 10:19-22). If you pray for something outside His will, He’ll say no to the request, but not to you. For you belong to Jesus and are one blood-bought, beloved child of the Father. 

You may not know how to pray as you ought. But, Jesus does. And he pleads and prays for you. You don’t know what you are asking. But, Jesus does. He is praying for you forgiveness. As your intercessor, Jesus has grabbed His Father’s ear and pulled it down to be attentive to your prayers. So that, through Jesus, those prayers are pleasing to God. Jesus has given you the ear of God. He is most certainly listening!