Can We Pray Wrong?

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.  I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.  Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

  • Philemon 1:3-7

 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

  • Matthew 6:5-8

“When I listened to public prayers in evangelical churches, I heard people telling God what to do, combined with thinly veiled hints on how others should behave.  When I listened to prayers in more liberal churches, I heard calls to action, as if prayer were something to get past so we can do the real work of God’s kingdom.”

  • Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?

With the first draft of this essay being written during the Fourth of July weekend, I have heard, more than once, the exposition of Benjamin Franklin who said that throughout the Revolutionary War they prayed daily and the prayers were effective, but have we not forgotten Who provided us with this opportunity to govern ourselves?  And after his speech the arguments that previously achieved nothing subsided and the U. S. Constitution was born.  And Congress starts every day in prayer ever since Franklin’s speech where Franklin quoted Scripture throughout the speech.

Yet, Yancey goes on to write about the author a long book on living the Christian life that never mentions prayer.  The author later regretted missing the point, blaming pressure from the Catholic church and the publishers, but he was the author – and prayer never came to mind.  Very telling.

But this topic is something that has been on my heart for a long time.  Our younger son accepted Jesus as his Savior in college, but when we first moved to Pennsylvania, he heard the pastor say something about praying incorrectly and it would be better to never pray than to do it wrong.  One of the primary reasons that we left that church.  So, our son quit praying.  Within a few weeks, his attitude toward everything changed.  In the process of trying to redirect him back toward the light as opposed to darkness, I suggested that he pray.  He burst out that he would only pray wrong and have God curse him forever as a result.  This shocked my wife and I.

First, before we get to the meat of the topic, the first way to pray wrong is to not pray.  You should never feel God to be inaccessible.  You should never feel so unworthy that God does not wish to spend personal time with you.  And you should never fear that God will be angry because you did not pray right.

But considering praying wrong, the Janis Joplin hit song is not a prayer God would listen to.  You do not need a Mercedes Benz because all your friends have Porsches and you must make amends.  Nope, let’s just get that one off the books.

But what did Jesus say about the Pharisee and the tax collector?  In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus describes the Pharisee’s prayer as more boast than prayer, but the tax collector would not look up, and only said to have pity on him, a sinner.  The tax collector’s prayer was heard.  As one pastor wrote, maybe more than one, the Pharisee never really prayed.  He did as Jesus warns in the Scripture above from the Sermon on the Mount, boasting and puffing himself up.

And is that not the problem with most public prayers as described by Yancey?  Corporate prayers and private prayers probably have way too much of us telling God what to do.  But the thinly veiled admonishments need to be left for the sermon, if they are necessary at all.  As for the liberal churches or liberal pastors, in my experience, Yancey is spot on the target.  They do not pray very much.  I think it is because they are afraid that God might answer them and tell them that they are wrong.  God might tell the conservative or evangelical that he/she is wrong also, but they recognize that God is in control and a dialogue must be established, thus, unafraid to pray.

But Jesus escaped the crowd in the early morning or in the evening to quietly pray, as He suggests that we do above.  There is still reason to pray public prayers, but you must understand what the intent of the prayer is, keep your words few, and know when to sit down.  People expecting a sermon might wonder what just happened, but who knows, it might catch on.  It might spark interest so that they ask questions.

But we should never be worried about saying the wrong thing in our private prayers.  God filters that out.  We can pray for five minutes about everything that is on our heart, and God hears, “The person praying is in pain and needs comfort.”  God doesn’t hear each individual pain, because He already knows that.  If you think God doesn’t know or might forget if you left one ache out, you do not know God very well.  And if you do, why do you run down the list?  We can never shock God in our prayers.  He knows what is in our hearts to begin with, but we should be bold.  Jesus is our best friend, or He should be, and what would you talk about if your earthly best friend was next to you?  Now, you can talk to God about such things and even mention those secrets that you couldn’t trust your earthly best friend with knowing.

And even though we should not tell God what to do, why do we insist on someone being healed “completely?”  If someone has two broken legs, would anyone ask for only one leg to be healed?  Yes, someone with a stroke can be “healed” of the problems that caused the stroke but be left with the aftermath of the stroke.  God may give you the means to make more money, but you may suffer for years trying to erase old bad debt even with a higher paying job.  The same is true of the person who had a stroke.  The disability, as a result of the stroke, may be God’s means of witnessing to others, bringing many to Christ.  Or it may be the means for the stroke victim to realize that he/she needs God and accepts Jesus.  In all prayers we can ask, but God’s sovereign will shall still be done.

And does God answer prayers?  Yes.  Every time, but if you are like the public church prayer above, telling God what to do, you might not like the answer you receive.  But if you truly seek God’s Will, God is faithful and will answer you in His time.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


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