“Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). There are few requests more important than this one. As Director of the Centre for Biblical Preaching, I regularly receive requests from pastors and lay preachers and, in essence, the request is, “teach us to preach.” I think the request from the disciples is a more fundamental and important one.
I regularly receive requests from pastors and lay preachers and, in essence, the request is, “teach us to preach.” I think the request to pray is more fundamental and important.
In my late teens, and by then an enthusiastic young Christian, I read J.C. Ryle’s, Holiness. The opening sentence in his chapter on “Prayer” was, “Prayer is the most important thing in the Christian life.” That sentence hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightning, because prayer certainly wasn’t the most important thing in my Christian life. To be honest, I’ve lived uncomfortably with that statement ever since. I suspect I’m not too far from the mark when I say that most of us don’t do prayer well. We don’t pray much, and we don’t always pray the kind of prayers God wants us to pray. I think I’ve probably lived with 50 years of low-level guilt that, for all the progress I may have made in other areas of my Christian walk, my progress has been much slower in the important area of prayer.
Other People’s Prayers
So, I’ve begun to pray other people’s prayers. I sing other people’s songs so why not pray their prayers (let me hasten to add I don’t preach other people’s sermons; except the occasional illustration). In response to the request of the disciples, Jesus gave them a prayer. No doubt, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us about the character and content of prayer, but it’s also a prayer we can pray.
I’ve kept a daily prayer diary for years. It contains a catalogue of the people, groups and causes I commit to pray for. Recently, though, it contains the prayers of other people. For example, on Tuesday and Friday mornings I pray Martin Luther’s morning prayer:
Save me, I pray, today as well, from every evil and sin, so that all I do and the way that I live will please you. I put myself in your care, body and soul and all that I have. Let Your holy Angels be with me, and the ones I love, so that the evil enemy will not gain power over me.
Remembering the Devil
Actually, if it wasn’t for Luther’s prayer, I suspect that protection from the evil one would scarcely get a mention in my prayers. The apostle Paul speaks of Satan in most of his letters. Satan hindered him from returning to Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:18). He warns against giving Satan a foothold (Eph 4:27). He warns against overseers falling into the devil’s trap (1 Tim 3:7). He reminds the Roman believers that God will soon crush Satan under their feet (16:20). Jesus, Paul and Luther were acutely aware of the wiles of the evil one . Apart from the Lord’s prayer (“but deliver us from the evil one”) he’s been largely absent from my prayers.
My fellow trainer of preachers, Peter Adam, has shared with some friends prayers he prays for himself. Like so many, my temptation in prayer is to focus too much on the outer nature which is wasting away and too little on the inner nature which is daily being renewed. Peter’s prayers have helped me reorient my priorities:
Help me to repent and pray each day, and not fail through moral lapse. Renew my inner nature day by day by your Spirit. Help me to find your compassion and comfort in times of trouble. Give me self-discipline in eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working and exercising. Please help me to grow in purity, patience, wisdom, humility, grace, love, trust and openness.
Prayer and Competition
Peter, like me, is a preacher and trainer of preachers. One of the hidden sins of preachers is envy and competition. I love the German word, schadenfreude. It means taking pleasure in the suffering or failure of another. I certainly rejoice when another preacher preaches a very good sermon; just as long as it isn’t as good as mine! For too long I’ve battled these sins, and for too long I’ve failed to name and confess them, and pray about them.
Help me stop comparing myself with others, feeling either jealous or superior. Help me not to find my self-worth in my preaching and people’s response to my ministry. Help me to honour and love others in ministry and not compete with them. Take from me the desire to be noticed and praised by others. Take from me the fear of failure in preaching. Help me to desire your affirmation and approval, and to live for your glory and honour.
My perennial problem in prayer is forgetting. I become so absorbed with the events of my life I forget to pray important prayers. I need to confess my sins, remember the atonement, and repent daily. I need to remember to be thankful for everything; what the Anglican Prayer Book calls a “general thanksgiving.” I need to pray for the spread of the gospel, the planting of new churches, the restraint of “wickedness and vice” in my community, the government. I am thankful for friends who remind to pray these kinds of prayers.
I become so absorbed with the events of my life I forget to pray important prayers. I need to confess my sins, remember the atonement, and repent daily.
I teach preaching and when I ask preachers, “what part of preparing and preaching a sermon do you find the most difficult?” almost invariably, they reply, “Application.” It’s hard work and, for that reason, our applications are too often brief and clichéd. Again and again, we challenge our people to pray more, read the Bible more, witness more, but we rarely tell them how. Most people find these things, and many more besides, desirable but difficult. I think the unspoken response of many people is, “Yes, but tell me how!”
Lately, like I’ve done in this article, I’ve shared with people the kind of prayers I pray. And many are the prayers of other people. Every time I’ve done that, someone has asked me for a copy of my prayer. My job as a preacher, where appropriate, is not just to say, ‘what’ but ‘how’. God’s people want to pray, but their question is the age-old one, “Teach us to pray”. The prayers of other people have taught me to pray and rekindled my prayer life. May the prayers I pray also teach others to pray.