I recently returned from a trip to Ecuador to preach, evangelize, and train leaders in our church plant in the Andes mountains. After six years of traveling to this remote mountain village, I always return overjoyed about how our sovereign God is working out all things for His glory—even in a small and relatively unknown part of Ecuador. During my trip, I heard many different prayers by different people. Some of the people prayed during worship while others offered prayers of repentance. In each case I heard prayers that were shallow, not theologically precise, and often very short. However, I believe God was honored with the prayers of His people.
Prayers of New Believers
As we met with people in small homes and discussed the gospel, a couple of times we witnessed people come under the conviction of the Lord and ask how they could repent and be saved. We explained the gospel to them, explained repentance, and they responded with a desire to call upon the Lord for salvation. This is a rare thing for us over the years since we don’t engage in high pressure sales techniques in our mission trips. We teach the truth of the gospel as we begin with the Law of God and move to the hope of salvation through Christ alone, but we never engage in manipulation techniques.
There were other times where we heard people pray who were young in the faith and didn’t have a fully developed theology of the Trinity offer prayers to God. In such cases, we heard prayers that were offered from the heart, but they weren’t organized properly nor were they filled with theological precision. No matter what, I truly believe that God delights in the shallow prayers of new believers. Just as a father or mother delights in the immature cries of their baby, so does our heavenly Father delight in the prayers of babes in Christ.
Prayers of Growing Believers
Through the years in our ministry in Ecuador, I’ve heard prayers from growing, but still immature believers in the church. Some were teenagers while others were men who attended our training sessions out of a desire to grow in their walk with Christ. Not one time did I listen to a prayer and think it was profoundly deep or theologically precise. Most of the prayers were short, shallow, and childlike. In all cases, I think God was honored. I never felt as if the people were praying in order to impress the ears of the people in the congregation. They were praying from a heart of devotion to God and a desire to know Him more intimately.
We can all learn a profound lesson from the prayers of new believers and growing believers alike. Although they pray with language that’s often childlike and shallow, their prayers are offered from a heart of love and praise to God. When we call on the Lord and engage in a time of prayer to Him, not only does He hear us, but He delights in such sincere childlike prayers. God loves to see our dependence upon Him and rejoices in the praise of His people. Even when people have limited knowledge regarding the absolute sovereignty of God, a simple, short, and childlike expression of dependence honors God. Jerry Bridges once said:
Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God. If God is not sovereign, we have no assurance that He is able to answer our prayers. Our prayers would become nothing more than wishes. But while God’s sovereignty, along with His wisdom and love, is the foundation of our trust in Him, prayer is the expression of trust. 
Over the years through my Christian life and pastoral ministry, I’ve repeatedly heard pastors, church leaders, and fellow Christians pray to impress others as opposed to communicating to God. When praying, they suddenly speak in the language of the King James Bible praying long circular prayers filled with theological accuracy. However, I often end such times of prayer feeling as if the individual was really seeking to impress me rather than praise God.
We need more simple prayers from the children of God who have a proper perspective of their ultimate dependence upon the God who saves sinners. Just as baby talk delights the father as he hears his son learning to speak, so does the immature prayer of an immature Christian delight our heavenly Father. Sometimes bad prayers can be good prayers. Sure, our prayers will get better over time, but I’m certain that the bad prayers of new believers are a delightful sound to the sovereign God who rules the universe.
Psalm 102:17 – he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
- Jerry Bridges, Is God Really In Control? Trusting God in a World of Hurt, (Carol Stream, IL: NavPress, 2006), 69-70.
In recent weeks, I’ve been working with my children on how to be more than one-dimensional in their prayer life. It’s really easy to fall into ruts when we pray. At times, we learn specific prayers and we repeat them over and over to the point that they become a mantra rather than an actual prayer. It’s important to realize that we should focus on people and upon God in our prayer. We would be wise to make requests and provide praises.
The Horizontal Prayer
As we look into the early church from Acts 2:42-47, we see that immediately they are gathered under the preaching of the Word and prayer. They prayed together and they prayed for one another. We can see later as Peter was imprisoned, the church was gathered together praying for Peter (Acts 12:6-19). It’s healthy for the church to pray for one another’s needs.
In the early church context, it was difficult and dangerous to follow Jesus. The church understood the importance of praying for the physical and spiritual needs of one another. The horizontal aspect of prayer has always been important among God’s people, and it’s vitally important today as well. We must not neglect praying for one another.
Consider the needs of the church:
- Are you praying for your pastors and deacons?
- Are you praying for the church’s missions ministries?
- Are you praying for the church’s discipleship ministries?
- Are you praying for the poor in your community?
- Are you praying for the sick among your church family?
- Are you praying for the salvation of the children of your church?
- Are you praying for the growth of the church spiritually and numerically?
The Vertical Prayer
Have you taken a look at the prayer sheet for your church in recent days? What does it look like? How much of your church’s prayer sheet is focused upon the attributes of God? Is there any point on the prayer sheet where the church is directed to praise God? It’s really easy to turn your church’s prayer meeting into a time where people only ask God to heal physical problems. There’s more to praying than asking God to heal uncle Joe’s bad back.
I’ve been instructing my children to spend time praying for others, but to finish by choosing one important thing about God and take time to not only recognize it, but to praise Him. In one prayer, it’s possible to end by spending some time focused on God’s mercy and praising Him for being a God of mercy. On another occasion, we could end our time of prayer by focusing on God’s justice and praising God for His promise to judge the lawless.
We need set times where we simply focus on God and praise Him for who He is, what He has already done, and what He promises to do in the future.
Consider the benefits of such praying:
- It’s edifying to be comforted by God’s attributes. Especially the attributes that are not communicable.
- It’s educational to spend time considering the bigness of God’s power and love.
- It’s worshipful to focus on God as He has identified Himself to us in Scripture — the Triune God who saves sinners.
- It’s joyful to look into God’s justice and have confidence that He will one day judge with righteous judgment.
Consider the words of J.C. Rye regarding prayer:
Prayer is the mightiest weapon that God has placed in our hands. It is the best weapon to use in every difficulty, and the surest remedy in every trouble. It is the key that unlocks the treasury of promises, and the hand that draws forth grace and help in time of need. It is the silver trumpet that God commands us to sound in all our necessity, and it is the cry He has promised always to listen to, just as a loving mother listens attentively to the voice of her child. 
Prayer is one of the easiest areas of the Christian life to neglect, but it’s one of the greatest privileges that we possess as children of God. We would be wise to develop strong praying families who in turn make up strong praying churches.
- J.C. Ryle, The Duties of Parents.
If we’re all honest, prayer is often a very difficult practice to maintain and an easy area to neglect. If the surveys [PewResearch, Barna] are remotely accurate, prayer is an area of deficiency in the evangelical church today. If parents aren’t praying for their children’s salvation and the spiritual maturity of their household, we can rest assured that pastors are being greatly neglected in prayer as well.
You can’t pray for everyone. In fact, not everyone and every situation is worthy of your time investment for prayer. All of us must use our time wisely and superficial requests that popup on social media or come our way in casual conversations must be evaluated carefully before we commit to prayer. However, we don’t have to think twice about praying for our pastors. To neglect praying for our pastors is to walk in disobedience to the Lord.
The Imperative to Pray for Your Pastors
In Hebrews 13:17-18, we see some very important words as it pertains to pastoral ministry. In reading this text recently, it was verse 18 that really impacted me. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Pray for us.” Not only should the church submit and obey the pastors placed over them, but the church is likewise called to pray for them. This comes in form of an imperative. In other words, it’s a command and one that we must not neglect.
Hebrews 13:17-18 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.  Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.
It should be further noted that when the writer emphasizes praying for the pastors, he does so in the plural just as he begins in the previous verse with a command to obey leaders. Both are mentioned in the plural. It’s very probable that the writer of this epistle was a pastor in the local church or churches to which he was addressing this letter. Notice that he doesn’t call upon the church to pray for their “favorite” or “preferred” pastor. The church is called to pray for all of the pastors who were watching over them and caring for their souls. You can’t expect the shepherds of God’s flock to watch over you and your family in the night hours, lead you to spiritual nourishment, protect you from the wolves, and lavish you with affection if you’re dry in your devotion to prayer and refusing to engage in intercessory prayer for them.
The Fruit of Praying for Your Pastors
If you look at the context of Hebrews 13:18, you will see that in the previous verse, the writer to the Hebrews is laying out a case for pastoral authority and the need to submit to such God ordained authority. However, he doesn’t end his thought after the phrase, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” He goes on to convey a very helpful thought.
He writes, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17). Notice the goal is for pastors to do their work of shepherding with joy rather than groaning.
Consider the practical and spiritual benefits of praying for your pastors:
- Your pastors will care for your soul with joy.
- Your pastors will stand before the throne of God one day and give an account of their ministry to you with joy.
- Praying for your pastors will make submitting to their authority easier as you consider their responsibility.
- Caring for your pastors is ultimately caring for yourself—practically speaking.
- Pastors are made out of the same flesh that the sheep are made of. They’re capable of sin, compromise, and falling into the traps of the evil one. It’s important to pray for their spiritual wellbeing.
- Pastors often have families too, and it would be wise to pray for the health of their family life, the pastors’ marriages, and the relationship with their children. The church will suffer if the pastors’ families are suffering with sin problems or spiritual deficiencies.
- Pastors need to be free to study and pray in order to properly feed the church from the Word of God. Pray for the pastors’ prayer life and devotion to God’s Word.
At the end of the day, when it comes time to stand before the Lord, we don’t want to be found negligent in our prayers for those who were entrusted to care for our souls. It was John Bunyan who once said, “Prayer will make a man cease from sin, or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer.” 
- I.D.E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury, (Carlisle, PA.,Banner of Truth, 2000), 211.
In our attempt to be more efficient and due to our commitment to the clock, we often trim things from the services that should be guarded and insert things that have no place in the worship service. At least, that’s my personal opinion as I survey church worship services while traveling and reevaluate our own worship service back home. When trimming things from your own worship service in order to become more efficient, could I make one plea? Don’t take away the pastoral prayer.
I’ve witnessed people in the church become angry because someone moved a particular piece of church furniture or because a guest unknowingly sat in their typical seat on Sunday. I know how this looks and feels from the perspective of a pastor, but I’d like to put out a request to guard the pastoral prayer and keep it secure in the life of the weekly worship service. In fact, an argument could be made that we don’t need less praying—if anything, we need more praying in our worship.
Defining the Pastoral Prayer
To pray is to communicate with God, but there are different types of prayer. There is a time and place for private prayer, family prayer, and corporate prayer with the church. In Geneva back in the sixteenth-century, John Calvin led his church to incorporate the invocation, a prayer of confession, prayers of illumination (before and after the sermon), and a pastoral prayer. These public prayer times in the life of the church are important. For the sake of this article, we will focus on the pastoral prayer.
The pastoral prayer is the moment in which the pastor leads the people before the throne of grace, and seeks to prepare the congregation for worship. A working definition of the pastoral prayer is as follows:
The public and intentional prayer led by the pastor-teacher in effort to praise our Trinitarian God, intercede for the church’s sin, and a public petition for the church’s immediate needs.
This intentional time of worship in prayer should be well thought out, prepared beforehand, and it should avoid the use of filler words, repetitive phrases, cliches, and “spiritual” sounding vocabulary.
Important Elements of the Pastoral Prayer
A pastoral prayer must be pastoral. It should go without saying, but a responsibility to pray for the people and to lead the church in prayer is something that should be carried out with respect, humility, and responsibility. D. A. Carson writes:
In the last century the great English preacher Charles Spurgeon did not mind sharing his pulpit: others sometimes preached in his home church even when he was present. But when it came to the “pastoral prayer,” if he was present, he reserved that part of the service for himself. This decision did not arise out of any priestly conviction that his prayers were more efficacious than others. Rather, it arose from his love for his people, his high view of prayer, his conviction that public prayer should not only intercede with God but also instruct and edify and encourage the saints. 
From that statement, I take the following list of elements:
- Pastoral Sensitivity and Affection
To pray well is a constant battle for the Christian, and to pray in public well takes time and specific intentionality. The pastor who offers the pastoral prayer must be careful not to ramble and to fill up the prayer with filler words. In English class back in high school we often used filler words to meet the minimum length of the assigned paper. When praying, and especially praying in public, we need to refrain from such practices. George Muller once wrote the following, “Our prayer meetings have been a blessing to us and united us more than ever in the work.”  He wasn’t writing about the public prayer meeting or the pastoral prayer, but Muller understood the importance of prayer and he led his orphan ministry to the throne of grace daily. It’s one thing for a pastor to preach well, but if he is not leading the church to the throne in prayer, his preaching will likely fall on deaf ears.
- D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His prayers, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992), 34-35.
- George Muller, The Autobiography of George Muller, (New Kensington, PA, Whitaker House, 1984), 127.
This summer, we are reading Don Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life together. With certain goals for us as individuals, we all desire to grow in grace and personal holiness. The purpose of this study is to help us make necessary adjustments in our spiritual lives that will enable us to achieve such goals by incorporating the use of spiritual disciplines.
In the previous two chapters, Don Whitney made the point that the most important of the spiritual disciplines is Bible intake. In this chapter (chapter 4), he takes a good look at the discipline of prayer. In the opening words of this chapter, Don Whitney writes, “Despite the penultimate importance of prayer, however, statistical surveys and experience seem to agree that a large percentage of professing Christians spend little time in sustained prayer” (79).
Prayer Is Expected
Jesus expects His children to pray. This point is made abundantly clear as Whitney cites several passages (Matt. 6:5, 6, 7, 9; Luke 11:9; Luke 18:1). He goes on to suggest that Jesus’ words in the Bible are personal expectations for us as His children. Not only does Jesus expect us to pray, but the totality of God’s Word makes it clear that followers of Christ are to be praying people.
- Colossians 4:2 – Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:17 – Pray without ceasing.
Don Whitney writes, “When our awareness of the greatness of God and the gospel is dim, our prayer lives will be small.” These words are true and helpful as we consider the foundational reasons behind the prayerlessness that plagues a large percentage of God’s people.
Prayer Is Learned
Just as Whitney pointed to poor methods that prevent people from memorizing the Bible, in like manner, he makes the claim that that people are not praying more is based on the fact that they’ve never been taught to pray. Don Whitney writes, “If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you know that you learn it best when you actually have to speak it” (85). He does a good job of pressing the point that we must learn to pray. The best way to do this is by consistent practice.
Whitney goes to the Puritans and provides several good quotations to demonstrate the need to meditate upon the Scriptures as a good way of praying through God’s Word. He quotes William Bridge who said, “Reading without meditation is unfruitful; meditation without reading is hurtful; to meditate and to read without prayer upon both, is without blessing” (88).
Prayer Is Answered
Not only are we called to pray and to learn to pray better, but we are to trust God by faith to answer our prayers. Psalm 65:2 says, “O you who hear prayer.” What did Jesus teach us in Matthew 7:7-8? The point is clear, God answers prayer. This is not only a great comfort to our souls, but a true blessing to God’s children. God wants us to pray and God desires to answer His people who pray.
Catch up in this series:
Questions to Consider:
- Because prayer is expected, will you pray?
- Since prayer is learned, will you learn to pray?
- Since prayer is answered, will you persistently pray?
J.C. Ryle once said:
What is the reason that some believers are so much brighter and holier than others? I believe the difference, in nineteen cases out of twenty, arises from different habits about private prayer. I believe that those who are not eminently holy pray little, and those who are eminently holy pray much (98).
Next Week: Next week, we will turn to chapter 5 and look at the subject of worship. Read ahead and think through the content of that chapter, and we will gather here next week to discuss what we’re learning.
Discussion: Post your comments, thoughts, and questions in the comments section. I will engage with you at times, but the purpose is to allow everyone to have a conversation regarding what we are learning and considering through this book. I do hope you will be encouraged.
My thoughts and prayers are with you. This is a very common phrase that we hear from friends, see on social media, and hear spoken by politicians. What exactly does that mean? Recently, following the San Bernardino shooting, President Obama said, “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims in San Bernardino.” Exactly what does this mean?
In the wake of the shooting, the New York Daily News critiqued political candidates for tweeting statements about their “thoughts and prayers” suggesting in their opening line, “Prayer isn’t working.” It’s quite clear that our culture is confused about the subject of prayer. Some believe prayer is a waste of time. Others believe prayer is to be treated like a rabbit’s foot for good fortune. Still others “send” prayers to people rather than to God.
Those who mock God and claim that prayer is a waste of time should remember that God will not be mocked. Everyone who blasphemes His name and ridicules those who pray to Him will one day be brought to humility. The Scripture says that every knee will bow to Jesus one day and every tongue will confess that He is Lord (Philippians 2:5-11).
My concern with this issue is centered upon the professing Christian who is sending prayers to people rather than to God. Stop sending prayers to people, it’s a waste of time. Below I’ve included biblical reasons why we should direct our prayers to God rather than to people.
- Jesus provided us a sufficient model in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:5-14).
- Prayer is communication to God, not a good luck charm or for good vibes (1 Sam. 2:1).
- Prayer is dependency upon the sovereignty of God, not on prayer itself (2 Chron. 6:40; Neh. 1:6).
- Prayer is not a public practice first, it’s designed to be a private practice that occasionally becomes public (Matt. 6:7-9).
Jesus was not against praying in public, but He certainly stood in opposition to shallow and empty prayers that were made in public to the eyes and ears of men rather than to God. James Montgomery Boice, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, stated:
I believe that not one prayer in a hundred of those that fill our churches on a Sunday morning is actually made to Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are made to men or to the praying one himself, and that includes the prayers of preachers as well as those of the members of the congregation. 
In both national and personal tragedies, we will likely read and hear statements such as:
- Sending prayers now.
- Sending prayers your way.
- My thoughts are with you.
- My thoughts and prayers are with you.
Certainly many people have good intentions in what they mean by such comments in a Facebook post where you are requesting prayer, but in many cases, it reveals that we simply don’t know the purpose of prayer. If prayer, by it’s very purpose, is to communicate to God and cast our dependency upon His divine sovereignty, shouldn’t our posture and our language reveal that? Charles Spurgeon once said, “Prayer girds human weakness with divine strength, turns human folly into heavenly wisdom, and gives to troubled mortals the peace of God. We know not what prayer can do.”
We must learn to pray, and in order to do so we must read the Bible and develop a proper understanding of prayer. George Muller, in his autobiography, provided a good warning for us to consider:
In every good work, we must depend on the Lord. If anyone rises so that he may give the time which he takes from sleep to prayer and meditation, let him be sure that Satan will try to put obstacles in the way. 
Thinking about people in times of tragedy is a good thing. Praying for them is better. Sending thoughts and prayers to them is impossible outside of a written thought or prayer e-mailed or sent in letter form to their mailbox. We all need to learn to talk to God on behalf of ourselves and on behalf of others. Prayer is not a means of us getting better luck. Prayer is ultimately about the glory of God.
- James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1972), 185.
- George Muller, The Autobiography of George Muller, (Whitaker House Publications, 1984), 119.