“If you want to humble a Christian,” a wise man once suggested, “you should ask about his or her prayers." Nothing compares with this subject for sorrowful confessions. Why are we often frustrated with our times of prayer? And how can we develop a more satisfying prayer life? There is no single, easy answer. But one way to approach the problem of prayer is to think about prayer as a foreign language.
Have you ever learned another language? It’s not easy, or always fun. Hours are spent memorizing phrases, years studying grammar. Even common expressions such as “How goes it with you?” and “Please to excuse me” feel thick on the tongue. And eventually there comes a moment of decision: will you stop once you’ve learned a few standard phrases? Or will you aim for fluency? Continued effort brings its rewards, and one night you find yourself dreaming in French or Uzbek. Learning a new language opens up new opportunities for friends and for travel. Something of the same promise and process holds true with learning the language of prayer. Learning the language of prayer opens up new opportunities for intimacy with God and for spiritual growth.
Of course, prayer is more than just language. Prayer requires moments of waiting, listening, thinking and imaging. Sometimes it involves long periods of silence. For this reason, Clement of Alexandria described prayer as “keeping company with God.”
But as we keep company with God, we will spend a large part of the time talking. And talk is language. The language of prayer can be wonderfully developed . . . or woefully neglected.
Christian Jargon: Test Yourself
Unfortunately, many Christians neglect to cultivate the language of prayer, and their prayers are “pidgin prayers” full of Christian slang and archaic jargon. If we talked to our friends the way we talk to God, our friends might look at each other and say, “Hmm, the light is on, but nobody’s home.” Worse, they might feel we were insulting their intelligence. Pidgin prayer sounds so witless and silly! The bottom line is that it impoverishes communion with God and stunts our spiritual growth. To see whether you should pay more attention to the language of prayer, try the following test. When you pray:
- Do you say, “Father” as a form of punctuation? As in, “Father, it’s good to be here, Father, where Christians come together in love, Father, like you want us to, Father. . .”
- Do you “just” pray? “Father, we just thank you for just blessing us so much. Just look down on us with favor, and just bless our chapter, just as you blessed the church in Acts . . .” Scriptural support for this kind of prayer is shaky, requiring a literal reading of Proverbs 8:8 that says, “All the words of my mouth are just.”
- Do you rely on clichés and in-group code words? “Father God of the Apocalypse, I lift up your servant before you. Praise you Jesus. Look down on her from above. Praise you Jesus. Wash her in the blood of the Lamb. Praise you Jesus. Mold her, bless her, shake her, stir her.”Clichés and platitudes allow us to talk when we have nothing to say. But God seems to prefer silence (see Matthew 6:7).
- Do you slip into a phony accent? Some pray in tones of saccharin sweetness, others boom in stentorian polysyllables. To outsiders, prayer meetings can seem like spiritual costume parties. Whose voice do you put on when you pray?
- Do you sneak in subliminal messages? “Lord God, I repent that our prayer meetings aren’t better attended. Especially the one on Wednesday at noon. Just because some would rather eat lunch than pray, don’t withhold your blessing from our fund raiser, where we need to make $300 from the sale of our chapter T-shirts, at only $10.95 a shirt.” Sometimes we pray to everyone in the room but God.
- When you can’t think of anything to say, do you say it anyway? “Dear Father, uh, thank you for this pizza. Help us to enjoy it. Help us to have a good time tonight.” Do you really need divine aid to enjoy a pizza? Aren’t there stronger words of blessing than these?
- Does your mind wander when you pray? Perhaps you’re bored by your own prayers.
A “yes” to any of these questions means it’s time to take a course in the language of prayer! I’m not trying to be clever—this is a serious proposition.
At the Fall, sin distorted all aspects of life, including language and prayer. Communion with God is now perversely difficult because our sin and the sins of others affect the way we think and feel about being with God. Above everything else, prayer is relating to God as Father, with all the intimacy of being sons and daughters. But invariably we slip into thinking of prayer as an activity, as something to be done at specified points in the day. Operating on this flawed assumption, we turn prayer into a spiritual workout at best (“Hey, I’m praying thirty minutes a day now!). At its worst, prayer degenerates into the speed reading of grocery-list petitions (“Bless our small group, bless our InterVarsity chapter, bless my church, bless the Hidden People Group of the Day . . .”).
Sin also affects how we feel about prayer. Just as Adam and Eve hid from God out of their deep shame and fear, our aversions to prayer can often be traced back to unresolved feelings of shame and guilt over sin in our own lives. But the effects of sin go deeper still. Christians who have been deeply wounded by violence and hate may find it hard to pray. Resentment and fear choke up their feelings when they turn to the God who allowed them to be hurt. It is very difficult for wounded people to trust in a powerful, fatherly God when the very act of trusting punches buttons that sting their deepest hurts. Survivors of childhood abuse, and neglect, as well as those with absent fathers, need much grace and healing to supply the trust that prayer requires.
Wounding us in mind and heart, our fallen nature also corrupts the language of prayer. In Eden, it was natural and invigorating to talk with God. But east of Eden, prayer has become a foreign language that few speak well.
How do we learn foreign languages? By mimicking new words and phrases. Of course, if those we mimic do not speak the language well, we learn to butcher it even worse. In any language training, the critical point is to secure a good teacher.
Christians learn to pray in the same way: we mimic the prayers of other Christians. I remember doing this as a college student when I transferred into a small group Bible study whose members prayed differently from my former study partners. The new group spent a lot of time “binding” things. They asked God to “bind” Satan. They “bound over” temptations. Even God was “bound” to his promises. Before long, I, too, was binding things right and left, including the High King of Heaven. This new form of prayer-slang gave me an illusion that I had made giant strides forward in spiritual growth. In reality, however, I was actually binding my own feet in some very serious heresy, the heresy that human beings can control God. As if I could throw a rope around the Almighty!
Naturally we want to become fluent in prayer. But care must be taken in choosing our teachers. When the disciples were frustrated by the poverty of their prayers, they went to Jesus and asked, “Teach us to pray.” Jesus responded with a clear teaching that was more than a mere suggestion. “This is how you should pray,” he said (Matthew. 6:9-13): “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
From the earliest days of the Church this prayer has been called “The Lord’s Prayer.” In one sense, this is a misnomer. Jesus intended it to be our prayer, the Christian’s Prayer. Even so, Christians typically do one of two things with the Lord’s Prayer. Either they repeat it verbatim—at light speed and without much thought—or they reserve it for rare occasions of public prayer, ignoring the fact that Jesus introduced the prayer with an imperative: “When you pray, say this” (Luke 11:2). In evangelical circles, this directive to “say this”—to actually use this model prayer—may be the most overlooked teaching of Christ today.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus has given us a “grammar for prayer,” one that organizes our thoughts and actually frees us to pray meaningfully to God. Grammar gives order to language and breathes meaning into speech. Jesus did not give us the Lord’s Prayer so that we might mindlessly repeat it (though there is nothing wrong with repeating the Lord’s Prayer with understanding in public settings; indeed, there is everything right about it). Rather, Jesus gave us a pattern for prayer to use frequently. He intended that the concerns of the Lord’s Prayer would be our concerns. He intended to teach us the kind of prayer language that pleases our Father and is good for our souls.
Jesus practiced what he preached. Recall the similarities between the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Both prayers look to God as Father. Both prayers are cries echoing faith in the will of God, faith that good will come when God’s will is done. Note that in Gethsemane Jesus did not repeat a formula prayer; his circumstances and his emotional state influenced his praying. But even when his life hung in the balance, Jesus didn’t stray far from the central concerns of the same prayer he had taught his disciples to pray.
What would happen if you used the Lord’s Prayer as a model for your daily prayer? Some years ago I asked myself this question. Since that time I have looked to Jesus as my teacher in prayer, praying through the Lord’s Prayer most mornings. The experience has not made me like Mary Poppins, “perfect in every way,” but it has invigorated my prayer life by giving it a direction it never had before. Surprisingly, praying through the Lord’s Prayer has never become stale. On the contrary, I have discovered what Christians through the ages have always maintained; the Lord’s Prayer brings fresh blessings every time it is prayed.
When God Talks Back
One reason for this freshness is that when the Lord’s Prayer directs our devotions, we can’t help but hear the Word of God speaking directly to us. “Pidgin prayers” are hollow, encouraging us to suspect that we are only talking to ourselves. But praying through the Lord’s Prayer gets us involved in a dialogue with God. Even as we pray, he speaks to us through the words of the prayer. Each morning when I say, “Our Father . . . ,” I hear God saying to me, “I am your Father, but I’m also the Father of billions of people you do not know, and some you do know, but don’t like very much.” This puts me in my proper place before him! But I also hear God tenderly inviting me to come to him as one of his true children.
As we pray through the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, lingering over them, meditating on them, God teaches us what our true concerns in life should be. The first three petitions speak about God’s great purposes on earth and in heaven. The second three petitions urge us to confide all our physical and spiritual needs. The doxology, “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” commonly concludes the Lord’s Prayer. While the oldest Bible manuscripts do not include it, these are still fitting words of worship at the end of our prayer.
Through the years the words of the Lord’s Prayer remain the same, but the way we hear these words changes day by day. On some days we hear God refocusing our attention from merely personal affairs to more important matters involving his kingdom. Other days, we find particular comfort in God’s promise to meet all our true needs. Other times, we hear above all else the words of forgiveness implicit in the petition, “Forgive us our sins.” Wise Christians through the ages have written much on the Lord’s Prayer. The more we study what they have said, and the more we pray in the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, the better we will hear the voice of God speaking to us through it.
Using Our Own Voices
The Lord’s Prayer kindles our prayer life in another important way. It not only teaches us what we are to pray about, it frees us to find our own voices in prayer. In normal, everyday speech everyone has a unique way of talking. But have you noticed that when Christians pray they mostly sound alike? This is because we are afraid to talk to God in our own voices. So we imitate the voices of others.
It’s a paradox that a written prayer would help us find our own individual ways of talking to God, but it’s true. It is the paradox of all spiritual disciplines; what at first looks like a straightjacket turns out to be a set of wings. Learning to pray from Jesus, we find our own voice. Learning the language of prayer, we rediscover the long-lost language of our hearts.
The Spirit helps every Christian pray out of the unique contours of his or her heart and mind. In my own case, I like order and regularity, so my prayer follows a particular schedule. Each day of the week I talk to God about a different aspect of his kingdom and will and a different portion of my “daily bread.”Mondays are reserved for praying that the kingdom may come in the academic world where I work. Tuesdays I ask that God’s will be done among InterVarsity chapters. Wednesdays I pray for the church and missionaries. I intercede on Thursdays for my wife and me and on Fridays for our families.
But the way you would pray through the Lord’s Prayer might be entirely different. You might sing through it. You might visualize it. You might keep a diary to record what you see that day of God’s kingdom on earth, how God met your needs and what temptations were a drag to your spirit. There is freedom for us in the prayer that Jesus taught. The Lord’s Prayer may look rigid, but it is the rigidity of a backbone; it allows us to run to God.
Finding a Good Tutor
Other books are invaluable for learning the language of prayer. A favorite of mine is The Book of Common Prayer. It has prayers for every occasion and every moment of the day, and has taught me to pray things I would never have thought to say on my own. But the Psalms of the Bible are best. The Psalms teach us an important lesson about prayer. David’s simple, unvarnished prayers teach us that prayer does not have to be pretty, just honest. The point of learning the language of prayer is not what Professor Higgins said to Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion: “If you expect to get on with the Lord then you best learn not to offend his ears!” God mercifully hears all prayer, even when we butcher the language. He welcomes all honest prayer, no matter how stumbling, but he despises the lengthy prayers of babblers, no matter how beautiful (Matthew 6:7, 8; Luke 20:46, 47).
This is a good point to remember in a time when prayer is getting renewed emphasis. Attendance at campus prayer meetings is up. Chapters are forming prayer teams. But lest we forget, the Israelites in Isaiah’s time and the Pharisees in Jesus’day were also great believers in prayer. They had a language of prayer, but it was mostly for show. Jesus warned against their methods and taught us a new grammar of prayer. His school teaches the best foreign language that could ever be learned.
(This article was first published in Student Leadership journal.)
Deepen your relationship with God with prayer guides and training materials from InterVarsity’s Spiritual Formation and Prayer team.