God's Favorite Prayers

Chapter Ten

How would God most like us to pray? Is there a most-favored prayer?

First, there is an even more basic question. What is prayer? We know that God already knows everything etched in our heart, as the Bible says, "Your father knows what you need before you ask."(1) The Bible also tells us that we should not pray "in synagogues and at the street corners" but that we should "go to our private room."(2) What does this mean? Does it mean we should not pray in church? Or does it mean, as it seems to me, that prayer is necessarily private, coming from the private room of our heart?

Yes! The Lord loves us and knows us. We do not pray to impress him. We also do not pray for the show of it or for the impression we create. We pray only for the Lord. This demands the utmost truthfulness and candor, coming from the depths of our heart.

If we are able, we can pray in the spirit of the Lord's Prayer, which was Christ's gift to us.(3) This is the most famous prayer in Christianity. Its key element is its plea that "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth." It is, in fact, a plea that God remove all barriers from within us so that we will do God's will on earth and that we will be instruments for bringing the kingdom into existence on earth. It is my belief that the other elements of this prayer all flow from this one key element. We keep God's name holy so that we will remember to do God's will. We ask for our daily bread so we will have the physical strength to do God's will. We ask for forgiveness and we grant forgiveness so that we will have the energy to do God's will. We want not to be lead into temptation so that we will not depart from doing God's will.

The most important prayer in the Bible was Jesus's prayer on the Mount of Olives. Here is how the Bible describes what happened the night before Jesus was arrested:

He then left to make his way as usual to the Mount of Olives, with the disciples following him. When he reached his destination he said to them, 'Pray not to be put to the test.'

Then he withdrew from them, about a stone's throw away, and knelt down and prayed. 'Father,' he said, 'if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let you will be done, not mine.' Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him strength. In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.

Why has the Lord done this? Is it possible that even Christ, on the eve of the most important event in history, needed to tell God his truth? Part of him wanted the cup taken away so that he would not bear the sins of all the world. So he told God what was happening in the secret room of his heart. He begged for the strength to have God's will done. Then God answered him. The cup was not taken away, but an angel appeared to strengthen him, and he used this new strength to pray even harder. He put his whole heart and soul into the prayer until "his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood."

Christ's example is the basis for his earlier teaching on effective prayer:

'So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; everyone who searches finds; everyone who knocks will have the door opened. What father among you, if his son asked for a fish, would hand him a snake? Or if he asked for an egg, hand him a scorpion. If you then, evil as you are, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"(4)(5)

Effective prayer, according to this teaching, requires a relationship with God. It requires asking, searching and knocking. That is what prayer is about. It places us into relationship with God and opens the door to that relationship. God will not necessarily give us what we say we want. He knows when we are asking for a snake, even though we may think we know precisely what we want. And he will not give us a snake, even though we describe a snake to us in our speech. What he will give us is the Holy Spirit, which is the greatest gift of all.

. The wishes we contain in our prayers often go unfulfilled. Some prayers go unanswered for centuries, such as the prayer of the Jews to be released from slavery in Egypt, and then finally are answered;(6) or the prayer of Job for mercy, answered only after he had endured enormous suffering. There are other examples of the limitations of prayer, including Paul's unanswered prayer to have the "thorn in his flesh" taken from him.(7) Peter, out of love for Jesus, voiced his prayer that the crucifixion would not occur. Not only was that prayer unanswered, but Jesus scolded him for thinking as men think rather than as God thinks.(8)

Although all the psalms capture the spirit of prayer, the 23rd Psalm does so with particular eloquence:

Yahweh is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows he lets me lie.

By tranquil streams he leads me

to restore my spirit,
He guides me in paths of saving justice
as befits his name.

Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger, for you are at my side.
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.

You prepare a table for me

under the eyes of my enemies;
you annoint my head with oil;
my cup brims over.

Kindness and faithful love pursue me

every day of my life,
I make my home in the house of Yahweh,
for all time to come.

In these words, the psalmist captures the essence of the drama of our life. There is a sense in which life always is a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Our death is assured. Our life, in the play of infinite time, is but a spark. Soon it will all be over. So we bathe ourselves in the brook of God/s love and we accept the rule of his staff and crook so that we can follow his ways of saving justice. God's love for us is kind and faithful and he is always at our side.

The Book of Daniel lets us know how the 23rd Psalm can be applied in truly difficult times. In Chapter 3 of that Book, Shadrach, Meshach and AbedNego refused to bow to the golden calf as ordered by Nebuchadnezzar. When Nebuchadnezzar threatened them with death in the fiery furnace, they replied:

If our God . . . is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace and from your power, Your Majesty, he will save us: and even if he does not, then you must know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your god . . . .

And so the three were taken to be burned in a fire so hot that the men carrying them are said to have been burnt to death by the flames. And so they entered the flames:

And they walked into the heart of the flames, praising God and blessing the Lord. Azariah stood in the heart of the fire, praying aloud thus:

May you be blessed and revered, Lord, God of our ancestors,
may your name be held glorious for ever.
For you are upright in all that you have done for us,
all your deeds are true,
all your ways right,
all your judgments true.
True is the sentence you have given
in all that you have brought down on us
and on Jerusalem, the holy city of our ancestors,
for you have treated us rightly and truly,
as our sins deserve.

Yes, we have sinned and committed a crime by deserting you,
yes, we have greatly sinned;
we have not listened to your commandments,
we have not observed them,
we have not done what you commanded us to do
for our own good.

Yes, all that you have brought down on us,
all that you have done to us,
you have been fully justified in doing.

You have handed us over to our enemies,
to a lawless people, the worst of the godless,
to an unjust king, the worst in the whole world;
today we have no right to open our mouths,
shame and dishonor are the lot
of those who serve and worship you.

Do not abandon us for ever,
for the sake of your name;
do not repudiate your covenant,
do not withdraw your favour from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your friend,
of Isaac, your servant,
and of Israel, your holy one,
to whom you promised to make their descendants as many as the stars of heaven
and as the grains of sand on the seashore.
Lord, we have become the least of all nations,
we are put to shame today throughout the world,
because of our sins.

We now have no leader, no prophet, no prince,
no burnt offering, no sacrifice, no oblation, no incense,
no place where we can make offerings to you
and win your favour.
But may the contrite soul, the humbled spirit,
be as acceptable to you
as burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
as thousands of fat lambs:
such let our sacrifice be to you today,
and may it please you that we follow you wholeheartedly,
since those who trust in you will not be shamed.
And now we put our whole heart into following you,
into fearing you and seeking your face once more.
Do not abandon us to shame
but treat us in accordance with your gentleness,
in accordance with the greatness of your mercy.
Rescue us in accordance with your wonderful deeds
and win fresh glory for your name, O Lord,

Confusion seize all who ill-treat your servants:
may they be covered with shame,
deprived of all their power,
and may their strength be broken.
Let them learn that you alone are God and Lord,
glorious over all the world.

All this time, the king's servants, who had thrown them into the furnace, had been stoking it with crude oil, pitch, tow and brushwood until the flames rose forty-nine cubits above the furnace and leaping out, burnt those Caldaeans to death who were standing round it. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace beside Azariah and his companions; he drove the flames of the fire outwards from the furnace and, in the heart of the furnace, wafted a coolness to them as of the breeze and dew, so that the fire did not touch them at all and caused them no pain or distress.
[Emphasis added.]

Thus, we see that three men of God, in the worst of times, spent their whole time being contrite and praising the Lord. Their reward was that they received a coolness "as of the breeze and dew." It is language very similar to Saint John's description of what it is like to be reborn in the spirit of God:(9)

In all truth I tell you,
no one can enter the kingdom of God
without being born through water and the Spirit;
what is born of human nature is human;
what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be surprised when I say:
You must be born from above.
The wind blows where it pleases;
you can hear its sound,
but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

1. Matthew 6:8.

2. Matthew 6:5-6.

3. Matthew 6: 9-13.

4. Luke 11: 9-13.

5. What of Jesus's promise, in John 14: 13-14, that "Whatever you ask for in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son." Are we invited to pray for things and or changes in circumstances? Matthew 7:7 and Mark 11:24 tell us, "how much more will your Father in heaven give go od things to those who ask him" and "believe that you have it already, and it will be yours."

On the other hand, Matthew 6:25 tells us "not to worry about your life" and Matthew 6: 24 telss us that we must choose between God and money, which apparently stands not just for "currency" but for all worldly things.

Although I am sure that prayers about the circumstances of life are acceptable to God, I also am convinced that the highest prayer (and the prayer to which Jesus listens most closely) is the prayer to grow closer to the Father and to walk with him. It is through such a prayer that we are promised to be born from above.

6. Love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. -- Matthew 5:43.Exodus 2:23: "The Israelites, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God." Exodus 3:8: "I have come down to rescue them from the clutches of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that country, to a country rich and broad, to a country flowing with milk and honey . . . ."

7. 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10:

. . . One of Satan's angels was sent to make me suffer terribly, so that I would not feel too proud.

Three times I begged the Lord to make this suffering go away. But he replied, "My kindness is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak." So if Christ keeps giving me his power, I will gladly brag about how weak I am. Yes, I am glad to be weak or insulted or mistreated or to have troubles and sufferings, if it is for Christ. Because when I am weak, I am strong.

Compare Job 30:16-23; 33:8-31; 37:19-24; 42:1-6.

8. Matthew 15: 22-23.

9. John 3: 5-8.

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