Prayer is the work of the Christian. Throughout the New Testament, we see prayer emphasized and encouraged. In His darkest hours, as the swords and torches came to haul Him away, Jesus spent time in prayer. Paul continuously urges his readers to pray, even as he recounts his prayers for them. The Apostles, even in the face of church troubles, prioritize the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4). If we believe the Scriptures, we must believe that prayer — communication with God — is foundational to our Christian walk.
And yet most of our prayers are vapid. Whether rote repetitions of the Our Father, or lists of people we would ask God to bless in some vague manner, we find ourselves struggling to keep our minds on God, to keep our focus on what we are supposedly doing. Interspersing “Thees” and “Thous” doesn’t help.
Prayer is hard work, and most of us have never really learned to do it. But because it is work, or rather, a craft, we can learn how to do it. And like any craft, once we have learned to do it, we can find ourselves doing it well and naturally. Oh, that we might all pray that way!
Most of us would never think about pre-planning our prayers. How pretentious. How artificial. And yet the Psalms are planned, structured prayers. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, He gave them a structure (“Pray in this way”) we know as the Our Father.
There are other “structured” prayers in the New Testament as well, and I’d like to examine one — a simple prayer for a specific result. I’m choosing this one because we Americans may need it in a very literal manner sooner than we think.
In the fourth chapter of Acts, John and Peter are preaching in the Jerusalem temple when they are arrested and hauled before the Jewish authorities. Though the judges cannot deny that miracles are talking place in Jesus’ name, they threaten Peter and John (and will later scourge them).
The Apostles return to the Church, and we read:
And when [the believers] heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said,
(1) “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,
(2) who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
(3) “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
(4) “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
— Acts 4:23-30 (ESV)
I’ve broken the prayer into four parts so that we can examine them separately yet see how they work together. This structure can serve as a model any time we have something specific we wish thoughtfully to pray for.
Part (1) – the Praise. As with the Our Father, we begin with an acknowledgement of who God is. He is the Creator, we are but created. Potter and clay. We depend upon Him, He is whole without us. It is critical that we have this relationship clear before we start regarding God as a cosmic butler, making noise that rises no further than our ceiling.
Part (2) – the Scripture.
This can be a promise, an event, a psalm, but it is not a random passage. Rather, it is a passage or promise that is going to speak specifically to Part (3). And this is where many of us will have the most trouble. Why? Because we do not know the Scriptures. How can we make bold requests of a stranger? How can we know God’s will for a specific situation? We must be in the Word of God to know God. We must abide in the Vine.
The Apostles chose here Psalm 2. In Psalm 2, God’s anointed is opposed – the circumstance in which they found themselves – but God’s anointed wins. This is not merely a quote but an especially apt expression of faith.
Many readers might instead choose 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 or James 1:5-6 or Romans 12:2. Whatever we choose, should apply specifically to the situation we are bringing before God. Bonus points if it spells out God’s will or contains a promise.
Part (3) – the Situation.
This is where we find ourselves, the circumstance or the trouble that we want to bring to God’s attention. For the early Church, it was a recognition that their political leadership was united in opposition to their message.
For us, it may that we are struggling with a sin, or facing a health issue, or losing a child to the world*. This is the place where, once we have pointed out what God says about a situation, we tell Him how we find ourselves in it. This is where confess our sin, our cowardice, our pride. This is where we show that our circumstances are beyond our power.
Finding ourselves in a situation that God has already described, and pointing that out to God, leads us to the main reason many of us pray in the first place**:
Part (4) – the Ask.
So now it is time to let God know what we need of Him. And most of us, with political leadership arrayed against us, might have asked for safety or security. Many of us ask for comfort, for a miraculous solution to our troubles.
The Church did not ask for safety. They did not ask that the leadership change. They asked that God would grant them boldness and the power to do God’s will in a way that brought Him glory. They did not ask God to fix the circumstances, but to empower them to act within them. They knew God’s will; they merely asked that it be done.
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
— Acts 4:31
God gave them what they asked for and more. That is the power of prayer answered.
When we decide ahead of time what we are going to ask God, based on His word, His will, and an honest assessment of where we are, we can be sure that our prayer will ascend before God**. God wants us to speak boldly. God wants us to walk blameless. God wants us to be conquerors. When we ask within His will, God is pleased to grant our petition.
Structuring or planning our prayers is a powerful way to make sure we are asking within God’s will, and in a specific way that He can answer.
This is not a magic formula to get God to do our bidding. Faith is not a weapon we wield against God. God is sovereign. But when we are systematic in our prayers, when we think about what we really want — or rather, since we are to be in God’s will, what God wants of us — we can be certain that we are giving God an opportunity to equip us for our circumstances.
And it is probable that we Men of the West are going to need to be so equipped in the coming months and years. Deus Vult.
* or a recognition that our political leadership is united in opposition to our message.
** or too often, the last resort.
*** “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” — 1 John 5:14