How to pray or not…

I preached Joshua 9 last week about how Israel was deceived by the Gibeonites into signing a treaty.  Joshua and his leaders asked all the right questions, but they failed to ask the right person.  Verse 14 identifies their mistake not as a failure to test, but a failure to pray: 14 So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord.

I often forget to pray. It seems that my default mode is to assume that sin hasn’t really impacted my intellect, emotions, even perceptions of experiences.  My gut is deceptive though it is the best friend I depend on most.  He’s a bit unreliable and his advice can easily be confused with bad Thai food.   My flesh can’t be trusted, as a cursory examination of the last 30+ years of decision-making would prove.  Alas, perhaps short-term memory is also the result of the fall.  I could do a lot worse than spend a more time reading the Bible, seeking godly counsel, and asking God directly about decisions, big and small.

If that isn’t enough to make me despair, I’ve realized that I often pray the wrong way. There is a wrong way.  Growing up our parents, and our pastors, tell us just to “talk with God.”  If the conversations I have with God are anything like the ones I have with my friends, I’m certain God isn’t impressed.  Not that I need to impress him (though I’ll admit that I am often tempted to “preach” as I pray publicly to impress others). When Jesus is preaching the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5.1-7.28), he takes a minute to warn his disciples not to practice righteousness, give, and pray the “wrong way.”  Then, he proceeds to teach his disciples the “right way” by teaching the Lord’s prayer.

What doesn’t make sense at first is that, right after telling his disciples not to fill the air with “empty phrases” and “many words” (Matt. 6.7), Jesus provides what sounds like an empty formula to recite.  At least, that is what I thought for many years.   But, if the prayer is taken less as a road map with street names and more as a compass with direction to walk, it makes much more sense.  Martin Luther did a fine job explaining how to pray when his barber asked him that same question the disciples asked Jesus.  He wrote, “A Simple Way to Pray.” In it, Luther explains how to pray the Lord’s Prayer beyond simply reciting it, as well how he prays through the 10 Commandments.

And while many might find his practice a bit too liturgical, I have found it to be a helpful grace to develop the discipline of prayer in my life.   When I need “emergency” prayer for an unexpected decision, it’s nice to not feel like God is someone you just found on Facebook after not seeing him since High School.  Without doubt, the wrong way to pray is to not pray at all.  It is wrong to pray without engaging the mind and to start blabbing like some little junior high girl with unlimited cell phone minutes. And while it is not sinful to pray in a way that, “what works for me”, it can be if the majority of time “how” we pray isn’t aligned with instructions Jesus gave (He probably knows what he is talking about).

I guess I had to take a few hundred words to say that it is not only important THAT we pray, but it does matter HOW we pray.  And exactly HOW isn’t something that any ONE person can work out for another, but it is something that EVERYone has to work out.


Author: Sam Ford

Sam Ford is a preacher, planter, and pastor from the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pastoring Restoration Road Church in Snohomish, WA.

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