I vividly remember the morning during one of my high school years when, before class, a friend closed a classroom door behind us. He told me his parents were probably going to get a divorce and then tearfully said, "But I believe in the power of prayer." I prayed with him then and there, even though I don't believe in the power of prayer. Shortly thereafter his parents were divorced anyway. I hope he reads this.
Too many times Christians (even some Lutherans) very piously talk about this "power," by which they seem to mean that the more heartfelt and spontaneous your petition, the more likely it is God will answer you. Prayer certainly seems powerful in Scripture. After the children of Israel fall into idolatry while Moses is receiving the divine Law by which God's people are to live, Moses intercedes for them. In reply, "the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened" (Exodus 32:14). As James says, "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working" (5:16). Even Jesus tells His disciples, "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13).
But really, how many times have you prayed in the name of Jesus for something you didn't receive, even though He commands us to ask and attaches His promises to that asking (Matthew 7:7-8)? Maybe it's that we truly don't know how to pray, and James is actually right when he says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly" (4:3).
What we have to remember is that prayer isn't our lifeline-Jesus is. True prayer verbalizes His promises to us and our faith which receives them. The Father hears Jesus' prayers because Jesus is the Word Himself. God's Word accomplishes that for which it is sent (Isaiah 55:11), and Jesus was sent for the salvation of the world. God heard Moses' prayer at Sinai, only because Moses possessed the power of God's promise. He reminded God of His own words: "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, 'I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven...'" (Exodus 32:13).
If we are to be honest, we often feel that the Church's formal prayers which direct us to the promises of God's Word seem stilted, rote, and mechanistic. We think that the more creative and spontaneous the prayer, the more sincere we are. I for one confess that too many times I am insincere in my prayers, regardless of what "type" of prayer I'm praying. I have no problem confessing that, because sincerity doesn't save us. Jesus said we won't be heard for our many words (Matthew 6:7), no matter how much sincerity we try to conjure up within ourselves. But God is faithful. Many Christians still mistrust written prayers. But because "the heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9), we can't depend on spontaneous prayers from our hearts (ex chorde), to be filled with sincerity. We can't afford to rely on our hearts when we pray.
When we pray the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, or the ordinaries of the liturgy, we're praying the inspired and life-giving Word of God. The power behind prayer is the power of God's Word, living and active (Hebrews 4:12).
You can try to simply pour out your heart to God as it is. But after you've bargained, then pleaded with God, clenched your fists and threatened Him, you'll be empty. When your road is dark and your cross is heavy, flowery prayers won't exactly roll off the tongue. Some of those days I've been so bitter, weary, and exhausted that my only prayer for the day has been, "Make haste, O God, to deliver me. Make haste to help me, O Lord" (Psalm 70:1). Sometimes it has just been, "Jesus, help me!" The liturgy taught me to pray that way.
At the end of the day, even with the treasury of devotion that we have in God's Word and His people's worship, we still don't always know how to pray (Romans 8:26). But the good news is the responsibility of approaching our heavenly Father according to His required perfection is taken right out of our hands and is put in the nail-pierced hands of our Savior, His dear Son in whom He delights. We know our Father hears the intercessions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, so we can confidently pray the words they have given to us. God-pleasing prayers will also direct us to Christ in His Word and Sacraments, in which all our petitions are fulfilled.
Don't feel that you should never pray from the heart. But first, let the Word inform your heart. Make your daily prayers the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Psalms, the Creed, the prayers in the Catechism, and the other prayers of the faithful that have been composed in accordance with these words and have stood the test of time. These will teach you how to pray, and will radically alter your spontaneous requests and thanksgivings.
Timothy Sheridan is a member of Our Savior Lutheran in Raleigh, NC. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Created: September 5th, 2015