“One of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” Luke 11:1b
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place,” one of the characters goes home after a long day’s work. As he is preparing for bed he decided to say his prayers. “But he knew it was all for nothing,” Hemingway said. And then his character mumbles a kind of Lord’s prayer that goes like this, “Our nothing who art in nothing, nothing be Thy name. Thy kingdom nothing. Thy will be nothing in nothing as it is in nothing. Give us this nothing our daily nothing, and nothing us our nothing as we nothing our nothings. And nothing us not into nothing but deliver us from nothing….” Obviously the man didn’t have a prayer. Like so many people his prayers turned to sawdust in his mouth. They bounced off the ceiling. They were nothing.
Many people admit to me that they haven’t got a prayer these days. They say things like, “I pray, but I seem to come up against a great cement wall. My prayers just don’t seem to get beyond it.” “I just cannot pray anymore. It seems so useless.” “When I pray I just don’t feel that God is listening.” “Why should I pray when I do not feel that God is at all interested in my personal problems.” “I am frustrated with prayer. My mind wanders.” “Why doesn’t God answer me?”
How about you? Are you like Mr. Hemingway’s character? Do you attempt to pray but feel it is all nothing? Are you like so many of today’s prayerless pedestrians? If you are, then join the club! The original disciples didn’t have a prayer either. And they were concerned about it! In the text we find Christ Jesus at prayer. The disciples were watching. The Lord seemed to talk with God so naturally. His words came out simply, sincerely. Why, it was almost as if Christ were a son having a discussion with a caring father. “How does He do it?” They must have wondered. “What is His secret?” They must have mused. And in the text we are told that, “one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” They were impressed. And they wanted tutoring.
Here a group of people that didn’t have a prayer was asking Jesus to teach them to pray. I wonder, are you willing to ask the Lord to teach you to pray? Are you willing to join with Christ in the school of prayer? If you are then you can learn to talk with God. You can learn to overcome the obstacles that have kept you from prayer.
My Mind Wanders!
One of the first obstacles to prayer is a wandering mind. We all know how this is. We sit down in the chair, earnestly begin to pray, and end up thinking about our bills or wondering if the plumber will come to fix that leak.
Wondering minds have hindered many a prayer life, not only in this day and time, but for all times. John Wesley was preaching in England once. He was speaking about how few people had an adequate prayer life. After his sermon was over a man came up to him and began to brag about his prayers. “The Lord and I are close,” he said. “We can talk about anything,” he stated. Wesley looked at this braggart and said, “Is that so? I bet you my horse you cannot even pray for thirty minutes without your mind wandering.” The bet was made. Right there in public the man knelt down and began to pray out loud. He did well. For five minutes he prayed for forgiveness. For another ten minutes he prayed for all the missionaries around the world. Then he began to pray for more understanding. He was well into his prayers when he suddenly opened his eyes and said, “By the way, Mr. Wesley, do I get the saddle along with the horse as well?” Yes, everyone who has ever tried to pray has had problems with drifting thoughts. Prayer is like turning your radio on. With the music comes static. You can fine tune a lot of the interference out but occasionally a crackle still gets through. There is a way we too can fine tune much of the static out of our prayer lives as well. Try keeping a prayer list in a small note book. In it write down everything that you want to pray about. Then throughout the day and especially during your quiet prayer time go through the list and make your requests known before the Lord. You might also try praying out loud. Between the list and praying out loud you should be able to stay on the wave length and out of the static. But do not expect too much! Even the experts in prayer will tell you that a wandering mind is a constant frustration. Just work at it. You will improve.
I Fall Asleep!
Another common complaint with prayer life is, “I get into bed to say my prayers at night and before I know it I fall asleep.” Well, what a way to go to sleep! And how pleasing to our heavenly Father it must be to have us crawl up into His lap to talk with Him and fall asleep there!
Bedtime prayers are a good way to spend our last waking moments. But if that is the only time we make for prayer it is not adequate. C.S. Lewis said, “No one in his senses would reserve his chief prayers for bedtime— obviously the worst possible hour for any action which needs concentration. My own plan, when hard-pressed, is to seize any time and place, however unsuitable, in preference to the last waking moment. On a day of traveling… I’d rather pray sitting in a crowded train than put it off till midnight. On other and slightly less crowded days a bench in a park or a back street where one can pace up and down will do.”
Lewis’ remarks are quite valid. Bedtime prayers are good but they are not adequate, if they are our only prayers. Why not set aside a time each day when you are alert and pray at that time? If you are a mother pray when the children are napping. If you are a student pray during your afternoon break. If you are a business man pray on the way to work in traffic.
I Don’t Have Time!
Moving on from problems of wandering thoughts and sleepiness we find another big hindrance to prayer life. “I don’t have time!” People say. “In the morning I am up and off like a shot. My feet don’t touch the ground till supper.” I have a friend in Atlanta who had that problem. He has to drive fifteen miles to work each day. The traffic is always heavy and hectic. It used to be that by the time this man reached his desk he was so ill no one dared to cross him! It took until three o’clock for his nerves to relax and his temper to cool. But by then it was almost time for him to go home! Another hour of traffic and he was ill again, snapping at his children and cross with his wife. I asked him what he did during those long hours in the car going to and from work. “I fuss at the man who pulled in front of me, and fume over all the time I waste!” He replied. I opened the Bible for him and we studied some prayer verses together. Then I challenged him saying, “You’re a Christian, Ralph— why don’t you use the time going to work to pray for yourself and your family? Then use the time coming home to pray for others.” A year passed before I visited again, but when I saw him, his face told the story without words. “It works!” He related. “It really works! I’m so much easier to live with! I get to the office relaxed and arrive home the same.”
Each of you probably finds time scarce when it comes to prayer. But if you will take a creative look at your day you will most certainly find a place to fit in thirty minutes or so of conversation with the Lord. You can pray on the way to work, sure. But you can also pray while you walk the dog or work in the garden, or hang out the clothes or sit in the chair.
Why Doesn’t God Answer Me?
Another problem people have with prayer is summed up in the complaint, “Why doesn’t God answer me? I’ve prayed and I’ve prayed for something and the Lord just hasn’t heard me.” Well, let me assure you, dear people, God always hears every prayer. In Isaiah 65:24 God says, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” You can believe that the Lord hears every single prayer you make. And you can be sure that He always answers you. But here is the catch. There are three answers to prayer; yes, no, and wait awhile.
What would you think of a six year old boy that asks his dad for a shotgun? The father wisely says “no,” and the child slumps in a chair and says, “Dad didn’t hear me. He won’t answer me.” Much of our complaints against prayer are like that. “Why doesn’t God answer me?” We query. What we really mean to say is, “Why doesn’t the Lord see things my way and give me what I want?”
As Christians we must realize that we are children praying to a very loving heavenly Father. He has our bet interests at heart. He would never over-indulge us, give us something that would harm us or protect us from an experience we need to go through to develop character. Though we can be confident He hears all our prayers, we must understand that “no” is as valid an answer as “yes” or “wait awhile.” Christ recognized this aspect of prayer. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Lord, let this cup pass from me. I don’t want to be crucified. Find some other way!” He was praying that God would see it His way. “Let your answer be ‘yes,’” Christ was pleading. But then Jesus showed He was willing for the answer to be otherwise. He said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Thy will be done.” And He went to the cross to die for our sins.
We too should pray after Christ’s example. Go ahead and talk to the Lord! Tell Him just how you feel. He hears you. But trust Him, trust His answer. Give Him the right to be the Father and to exercise His judgement over the children. Allow Him to say “yes” or “no” or “wait awhile.”
How Do I Say It?
Passing on now from obstacles to prayer like wandering minds, sleepiness, lack of time, and feeling like God doesn’t answer, let us examine another road block. Have you ever heard this complaint? “I just don’t know what to say. I mean that’s not just another body I am talking to! That’s God Almighty Himself! What do I say? What words do I use? I just don’t know how to pray.”
I suppose the church herself has frightened people away from prayer simply by the sort of King James language she uses. Have you ever heard an elder pray like this, “Holy and Infinite Jehovah, we beseech Thee, look down upon us, Thy humble servants, and in Thine infinite mercy and with Thy ineffable love grant the petitions of our hearts.”? Such prayer made with lofty language discourages us from praying. The inference is that if you cannot talk like that you cannot pray to God.
But did you know that the Bible does not tell us how we should pray— eyes open or closed, sitting, kneeling, standing, or lying; for a few seconds, for thirty minutes or all night; with lofty language or simple words. We are not even told if we should fold our hands, let them rest by our sides, or lift them high.
There are Bible stories which tell us of men and women who spoke to God in all kinds of postures. Moses lifted his arms to pray. Others folded their hands. Some prostrated themselves face down. Jesus knelt.
There are Bible stories which tell us of men and women who spoke to God in all kinds of situations. Daniel prayed from the lion’s den Solomon prayed from his palace. Paul prayed in prison. Joshua prayed in military victory. Christ talked to God in a garden.
There are Bible stories which tell of attitudes and emotions. Moses prayed with fervor and respect. David prayed while sinful and depressed. Paul prayed with confidence. Others prayed with joy. Christ prayed with pain while on the cross dying.
Here’s a little poem that humorously makes the point that the Bible is making here.
“The proper way for a man to pray,”
Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
“and the only proper attitude
Is down upon his knees.”
“No, I should say the way to pray,”
Said the Reverend Doctor Wise,
“Is standing straight with outstretched arms,
And rapt and upturned eyes.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Elder Snow,
“Such posture is too proud;
A man should pray with eyes fast closed,
And head contritely bowed.”
“It seems to me his hands should be
Austerely clasped in front,
With both thumbs pointed toward the ground,”
Said Reverend Doctor Blunt.
“Last year I fell in Hidgin’s well
Head first,” said Cyrus brown.
“With both my heels a stickin’ up,
My head a-pointin’ down;
An’ I made a prayer right then an’ there—
Best prayer I ever said,
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
Was a-standing on my head!”
Yes, it is quite true. You can pray just as well standing on your head in a well as you can on your knees in the chapel. You can pray to God anytime, anyplace, and with any words just as long as you are sincere. With God you’ve always got a prayer.
An Independent Spirit?
So far we’ve looked at barriers to prayer like wandering minds, drowsiness, not knowing how to pray and unanswered prayer. But perhaps the greatest hindrance to prayer is the feeling that it is unnecessary.
In 1776 the thirteen American colonies declared their independence from England. They told King George that they did not want or need him anymore. And so it was that the colonists formed their own government and struck out on their own. The third chapter of Genesis teaches that the human race once rebelled against God and declared its independence from Him. This rebellion is still very much with us. Most of us feel that we can take care of ourselves. We see no need to praise God or confess our sins or give thanks. When we need something we just buy it.
How does God respond to our independent spirit? He pushes us. He shoves us beyond independence to dependence. Often as a pastor I have counseled people in times of crisis. I hear them say, “I’ve tried everything. And now all my money, all my education and connections have been to no avail. Pastor, can God help me? I’m at the end of my rope.”
Prayer is a recognition that God exists. It is a confession to God, “I need you as a child needs his father.” And such a declaration of dependence comes hard to our rebel hearts. All too often it comes only as a last resort.
What about you? Have you made your declaration of dependence to God or are you still too proud to pray? Your Christian life should not be a kind of panic religion which is used only when you are at the end of your rope. So, if you have not done so, make certain right now that God knows you depend on Him. This recognition will remove the last obstacle to a lifestyle of living dialog with God.
You’ve Got God’s Undivided Attention!
Many of you remember the children’s nursery rhyme about the little old lady that lived in a shoe. She had so many children she didn’t know what to do. Some people think God is like that. He has so many children He cannot possible listen to them all. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Such thinking is to make the Lord smaller than He is! The Bible says that God knows your very name (Isaiah 40:26). The Bible says that even the hairs of your head are numbered (Mt. 10:30). The Bible says that we can cast all our cares on God because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Yes, the Bible says that you’ve got a prayer! So why not use it? Why not ask God right now to help you deal with the obstacles that have hindered your way to him in prayer? Why not say with the disciples, “Lord, teach me to pray”?
Let’s try an experiment right now, okay? I am asking each of you to think of a favorite hymn. Have you got one? Okay! Let’s everybody stand up and sing our favorite hymns out loud all at the same time. (After some moments of loud, chaotic singing the church grows quiet). Some of you are thinking that that is a mean thing to do to the Lord. Not really! Every Sunday morning that same kind of thing goes on. The Methodist are singing their hymn while the Baptists down the street are singing their’s. We Presbyterians are making our melodies while thousands of other Christian churches around the world are doing the same. To us it seems confusing. But to God it is beautiful indeed. For He is a father that loves His children and likes to talk. Just as He hears every single song separately so He hears every single prayer from His people separately. When each of you pray you have God’s full attention. He hears you. And if you will, you’ve got a prayer.
O Lord, forgive! My lips have been sealed, my relationship with you non-existent. I have had an independent spirit. And now by your grace in Jesus Christ, I accept your Fatherly oversight in my life. I confess I need you. So, Lord, be my Savior. And teach me to pray. Amen.