"Pastor, teach us to pray.”
All pastors have heard those words from members of their congregations. The request reveals a real need in the spiritual development of these parishioners and a hunger to connect with God. They recognize the importance of prayer but see a gap between the present quality of their prayers and where they would like them to be. They want someone to help them fi ll that void, and the person to whom they often turn is their spiritual guide, their pastor.
The first disciples of Jesus made the same request of Him (Luke 11). They watched and listened as Jesus prayed and were obviously impressed by what they observed. He didn’t pray the way other religious leaders did. He didn’t pray on street corners to impress others (Matt. 6:5) or use fl owery words and repetitive phrases to impress God (Matt. 6:7). He frequently slipped off by himself in the early hours, getting away from the demands of His ministry, to enjoy fellowship with God. Sometimes the twelve disciples were with Him, as they apparently were when they made their request. At other times He took a smaller group (Matt. 17:2; 26:37). Just as His words had an authoritative ring (Matt. 7:29), His prayers had power the disciples had not seen in other spiritual teachers. And when they compared their own prayers to those of Jesus, they saw something lacking in theirs. They sought to learn His secrets.
Teaching others to pray is no small responsibility. Consider these observations.
1. The primary purpose of prayer is intimacy with God
Perhaps the most important part of the model prayer Jesus gave His disciples, and the key to understanding the purpose of prayer, is found in the second word: Father. That single word reveals a revolutionary concept for prayer in the teaching of Jesus and showed His disciples why His prayers have such power and meaning. With that simple instruction, Jesus revealed the primary purpose of prayer—intimacy with God.
The early disciples must have been a little shocked by the familiarity with which Jesus told them to address God. The Jews had such respect for God that they
would not even speak His name, and here, Jesus instructed His disciples to call God "Father," a highly intimate address. The title established not only the desire for God’s relationship with humanity but also the nature of that desired relationship—that of parent and child.
The model prayer of Jesus for His disciples assumed a parent-child relationship and the care that goes with it. The level of intimacy in any relationship will determine
the freedom to make requests. Only in the case of extreme desperation will a person make serious pleas to a stranger or casual acquaintance. But the child of a loving parent feels free to ask for anything.
Of course, the child may not always get the answers he or she wants when these requests are made. A parent has a different perspective than the child and often has
a bigger picture in mind. The parent sees things a child’s limited vision cannot see. Love may compel the parent, at times, to say no or to tell the child to wait because the request is not best for the child or not in line with the parent’s desires, or the timing may not be right. But the relationship helps the child to accept the parent’s will (at times, grudgingly!). Within the bonds of trust, there is also confidence that the parent has the child’s best interest in mind.
I have three grown children—two daughters and a son. Until they were almost out of high school, they called me Daddy. At times I thought it was strange, and maybe
even a little immature, for them to address me that way. I almost said, “Come on, guys, you’re a little old for this ‘Daddy’ business. How about Dad or Pop or something that sounds a little more grown up?”
Then I realized that Daddy said a lot about our relationship and how they felt about me. They were expressing the special bond we had and, most of all, their dependence on me. Once I saw it in that light, I wasn’t about to stop them! When they finally outgrew calling me Daddy, I was a little sad.
God wants us to have “daddy” feelings about Him. The irony is, the more we mature in our relationship with Him, and the deeper our prayer life becomes, the more appropriate—and easier—“daddy” feelings are to express.
So, pastor, when parishioners ask for instruction on prayer, drive home the point that the primary purpose of prayer is to build an intimate relationship with God the Father. All other aspects of prayer stem from that critical understanding. Grasping this truth will help address the problem of “wish-list praying.” Many people have an ineffective prayer life because the only time they pray is when they ask God for something. The needs may be perfectly legitimate and, perhaps, unselfish. There is certainly a place for asking God to meet needs—the model prayer of Jesus shows that; but when asking is the sole dimension of prayer, it reveals immaturity in both prayer and relationship with God.
That’s the way small children relate to their parents. Even a loving human father longs for something more from his child than expressions of need. Fathers require time to instruct their children and to monitor their progress in their development of character. Prayer that neglects the desire for intimacy with God, and is instead
consumed with presenting one’s wish list, is like a human child who frequently goes to her or his father with a hand out but has little time to truly know the father and for the father to know them.
Praying a wish list without establishing intimacy with God may be one of the major reasons people feel dissatisfied with their prayers. A breakthrough will come when pastors help their people to see that intimacy with God is the starting point for a vital prayer life.
2. Intimacy with God is enhanced with proper mental preparation.
My doctor of ministry degree is in spiritual formation from Asbury Theological Seminary. As part of the degree requirements, I had to have a spiritual director for a year. A spiritual director questions, challenges, encourages, and guides a God-hungry person toward a deeper relationship with God. To become a certified spiritual director requires special training. Consequently, not many people have pursued certification, especially in the Protestant tradition.
After a good deal of searching, I finally located a lady named Sister Elaine, a Catholic nun, who was deeply in love with Jesus. I learned some wonderful things from her about prayer and relating with God. Two things I’ll never forget. One day she said to me, “David, what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you this week?” I thought for a moment and then responded, “This morning, I was called to the hospital at 3 a.m., where I held the hands of a wife and daughter as we watched their
husband and father die an undignified death.”
She acknowledged my grief and then continued. “And what’s the best thing that’s happened this week?”
I smiled and said, “That’s easy—watching my son play basketball for his high school team!” I then launched into a description about how much joy it brought me to see him play and play well.
She nodded and then said, “Okay, David. Where was God in those experiences? As you watched your parishioner die, and as you cared for his grieving family, where was God? And when you watched your son play basketball, and felt the joy that gave you, where was God?”
The point she made was to look for God in all things. Each moment of every day, in all the experiences of life, good and bad, learn to be conscious of the presence of God. Intimacy with God will grow when we start to see God’s activity in all things. Personally, I’ve developed an automatic response of expressing thanks to God for the good things that happen, acknowledging God as the source of those experiences. I often have a sense of awe and wonder at the goodness and mercy of God when I pause to give thanks.
In the same way, I’ve developed an automatic response of crying out to God when trials and difficulties come, acknowledging Him as the one who understands the circumstances even better than I do, and can sustain and guide me in the midst of the pain. In those moments God becomes the great burden bearer. By looking for God in all things, our bond is strengthened, and our prayers have great meaning.
Pastors will help their people develop a stronger prayer life if they encourage them to build intimacy by looking for God in all things.
Sister Elaine taught me a second important lesson on prayer. She asked me to imagine an activity that I could do with Jesus.
Several things came to mind. I finally landed on this one: I pictured myself on the side of a hill next to a giant boulder. Down the hill, along a shoreline, getting out of a boat, was Jesus. He walked to me and put His arm around me, and we walked together. Sometimes, if I’ve been neglectful in my prayers, He’s waiting for me by the rock. When I get there, Jesus smiles and says, “I’ve missed you. Let’s walk together.”
My prayers begin with the mental picture of walking with Jesus. This imagery works for me because I like to walk when I pray. I’ve shared this idea with many, and the responses have been almost everything imaginable.
One man said, “I see myself out in a boat, fishing with Jesus. We just talk with each other while we catch fish.” A student described how he plays catch with Jesus in the front yard of his home, like he did with his dad when he was growing up. They throw a baseball back and forth and talk about everything together while they play. The point of this exercise is to learn to relax in God’s presence. People often think they have to be formal and serious when they talk with God.
Intimacy grows as God becomes approachable through doing common, ordinary activities with us. Prayer becomes as natural as walking, fishing, or playing catch with Jesus. Pastors will help their people to build intimacy with God as they encourage them to develop a mental picture of relaxing activities they can do with Jesus.
3. Prayer is More than Talking. Prayer involves learning how to listen to God.
For most of my journey with the Lord, I thought prayer consisted of what I said to God in our time together. I had heard about listening, even talked about it when I taught about prayer; but the whole idea of listening to God remained largely an unsolved mystery to me.Listening to God is not easy because God normally doesn’t speak in an audible voice. There may be exceptions, but God usually speaks through other means, and listening to God is a learned experience. A new awareness came when I realized that listening to God included staying open to the various avenues through which God communicates—and they are limitless.
For example, I’ve heard God’s voice speaking through Scripture, through various devotional readings (and secular readings), in conversations with friends, in sermons, and through deep impressions in my mind as I’ve sought guidance from Him. This is not an exhaustive list. If we truly look for God in all things, God will turn up in the most unlikely places.
I would add a caution on the last example. Hearing God speak through deep, inner impressions is more than an experience of “God told me so.” When God speaks in this manner, He also provides a sense of affirmation, and He has a way of making the insensible make sense. A person who has had what he or she believe to be a
deep impression from God is wise to share those thoughts with trusted Christian friends. Quakers call this a “meeting for clearness.”
Because of what I’ve learned about listening to God through a variety of means, my personal prayer time each day includes Scripture and devotional reading as well as my vocal expressions. I consider all of these activities to be praying because God speaks as I read and reflect on the words.
Over the last several years I’ve had some dramatic experiences of hearing the voice of God in critical moments, but none more so than during a prayer retreat in 1987. I was approaching my third anniversary as a pastor in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I was drawn to the idea of two days of prayer and fasting for my congregation and seeking what God wanted for our church.
I located a retreat center that was part of a Trappist monastery in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. My plan was to begin fasting after dinner on Sunday night and to continue until Wednesday morning.
Upon my arrival at the retreat center, I was assigned a small cabin in a wooded area on the retreat grounds. The cabin consisted of one room with a bed, a desk, and a rocking chair. There was also a private bath area. The day was cold and rainy, dreary. I wasn’t experienced with extended prayer times and fasting, and by nightfall, I was feeling the effects of 24 hours without food. I’m ashamed to admit that all I could think about was a thick hamburger with tomato and onion. The wind blew, and the tree branches rustled. I felt alone and afraid. I said to myself, “That’s enough! I’m going to break this fast tomorrow and go home!”
When I awoke the next morning, the sun was shining brightly, and I felt better than I had the night before. I looked at my clock and saw I still had time to attend worship with others on the grounds. No one asked me if I was part of their religious tradition, and I didn’t tell, so I was served the elements of the Lord’s Supper—a piece of bread and a sip of communion wine, representing the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
When the service ended, I decided to go for a hike. It was a beautiful day. As I walked I was filled with thanksgiving to God. I couldn’t help but think about how the bread and wine had satisfied my physical hunger. As I reflected on this thought, I suddenly sensed the presence of our Lord in a new way, and I heard Him say, “I have satisfied your physical hunger. In the same way I want to be the satisfaction in every aspect of your life.”
The thought was so profound that it lifted me out of the despair and physical discomfort of the previous night, and I continued to fast and pray the rest of the day with refreshment to my soul. The experience was one of the most amazing of my life because I had heard God’s voice.
“Pastor, teach us to pray.”
The responsibility of teaching others to pray is a daunting task but rewarding as we see our people developing vital prayer lives. For pastors to truly be good teachers, they must teach from their own experiences in prayer, or their instruction will be academic instead of heartfelt. Perhaps these suggestions will benefit pastors and inspire them as they seek to lead their people.
DAVID P. WILSON serves as general secretary of the Church of the Nazarene.