The Christian life is a life of prayer. Martin Luther said, “As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.” But prayer, like making clothes and mending shoes, requires learning and practice.
And while He was in a certain place praying, when He ceased, a certain one of His disciples said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples. –Luke 11:1
If we are going to pray properly, we need to learn what to pray for and how to pray. Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke 11 focuses primarily on these two things. ‘The what’ refers to the content of our prayer. The Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6 gives us four categories to care for in our prayer life:
- God’s name, kingdom, and will
- Our daily needs (present)
- Our failures (past)
- Our deliverance (future)
This prayer is incredibly balanced in content (see above), scope (past, present, future, heaven, and earth), and priority (God, then us, then the evil one). What can’t be subsumed under these categories? We should overlay the pattern of this prayer onto all our prayer life. It is not designed to be mechanically recited but acts like an organic template that we should expand according to the Spirit’s anointing and the present situation.
Without this prayer informing the content and thrust of our prayer life, we may flounder. OR we may lapse into babbling and trust simply in the length of our prayer (Matt. 6:7). A long prayer, however, is not necessarily a good prayer. A long prayer may lose its focus, get off track, or dissolve into generalizations, especially if we are praying out loud in a group. It doesn’t have to, but it may. An example of an inspiring and focused, lengthy prayer is Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9:4-19. But for the normal, day-to-day prayer life, Luther’s word, again, may be spot on: “A good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent.” Watchman Nee said:
When we pray, there must be not only the desire but also the word to express the desire. Sometimes in our desire we have something we want, but the more we speak the further away we seem to be from our desire. We must also be watchful to guard against this. Satan’s strategy is either to hold us back so that we do not pray or push us forward while we pray so that the more we pray the more we are lost. Therefore, when we pray we have to guard ourselves so that our words will not deviate from the center. Once we discover that our words have deviated, we should come back. We must be watchful to aim in the right direction and persist to keep out unnecessary words. We have to guard ourselves from praying the prayers that are not prayers at all.
The value of a prayer doesn’t lie in its length, diction, or homiletic development. Prayer should be the expression of the inner sense of our spirit, guided by the revelation of the Scriptures. The Spirit and the Word are the two biggest keys for learning how to pray. The combination of the two is potent. But the most important thing about prayer is just to start praying.