Praying with Heart and not a Thesaurus
[Praying Aloud – Part 2]
We are vulnerable whenever we pray in the hearing of others.
For a Christian, so much of our prayer life occurs privately and in the secret place of our thoughts. We bring to God our joys, burdens, and requests.
Then when the time comes to pray aloud at the dinner table, at a meeting, or in class, some of this ‘inner life’ is faith is exposed. Now other people are allowed to hear the way in which we speak to God, like the kind of language we use, or what we consider important to mention before the Lord.
And this is where many might struggle with praying aloud. A person who enjoys a sincere prayer life may find that her prayers out loud seem stilted and artificial. Repetition and stammering plague us. Altogether, praying aloud can be an activity that makes even the most confident feel self-conscious.
But if we are going to pray in the presence of others, then let the words simply arise from our heart, from a place of living communion with God. It is in the daily life of faith that we learn who God is and what pleases him. And for a few moments of public prayer, we get to express some of these things, not only for ourselves, but for others.
Walking with God
This reveals how essential it is that those in leadership are themselves walking close to the Lord. Fathers, mothers, elders, teachers, ministers, and husbands are all busy with the activity of guiding others in the service of the Lord: teaching, disciplining, preaching, nurturing—and praying with them. To do any of this work properly, a personal faith is vital. As Andrew Blackwood puts it so well (108):
The man who at times would lead others to God should at all times live close to him.
Now imagine doing this important activity without a living faith! In particular, think of a person who dares to pray out loud while rarely praying privately. Their prayers will be at best formalistic, and at worst, hypocritical. Says Charles Spurgeon in his lecture to theological students on public praying, “Habitual communion with God must be maintained, or our public prayers will be vapid or formal” (55).
Preparing to Pray
Anyone who will pray aloud ought to be well-prepared, then. The first and foundational level of preparation involves our personal relationship with God. Scripture teaches us that such a relationship is marked by daily repentance from our sins and a humble faith in his Word.
The second level of preparation involves readying our heart and mind to bring to God the thanksgivings and petitions of those for whom we’re praying. As we end this meeting or visit or class, as we open this meal, as we respond to this sermon, what is it particularly that we should pray to God our Father?
Spurgeon advises that preparation for public prayer involves “the solemn consideration beforehand of the importance of prayer, meditation upon the needs of men’s souls, and a remembrance of the promises which we are to plead” (68). That sounds complicated, but when we pray, we ought not open our mouths carelessly and just see what floats out. We should actually apply our heart and mind to the activity. For what do we adore God at this moment in time? What sins do we confess to him? For what gifts do we thank our Father? What requests do we bring to him?
In praying to God audibly, it is also fitting that we reflect on the kind of words that we use. We’ve been saying that prayer should be a sincere expression of our heart—we ought not to put on ‘holy airs’ or adopt an overly pious or intellectual tone. There is no need to pray with one eye open on a thesaurus.
Even so, when we are praying in the hearing of others, we should be aware of our listeners and pray in such a way that they can follow. If we make use of phrases that sound like they’ve been extracted directly from the King James Version, our children or students or fellow believers will probably struggle mightily to pray with us. Likewise, if our speaking with God is too colloquial or informal, some might strain to join in the prayer. Our words should be reverent, humble, loving and confident.
Thou Shalt Not
There is no divinely sanctioned rulebook for prayer. But in reflecting on our language in prayer, allow me to share a few ways in which I see public prayers misused. And in writing this, be clear that I include myself as guilty, many times over.
One common ‘filler’ for public prayers is what was once described to me as “telling God what time it is.” It’s a familiar way to begin, “LORD God, we come to you at the beginning of this school meeting…” “Father, we’re gathered here on this Tuesday evening for Bible study…” Have you ever wondered about the purpose of such ‘time-telling’ in prayer? Is it necessary?
Similarly, there is a tendency to turn a public prayer into an information bulletin. As someone who has often been asked to pray for the brother who just went in for an emergency appendectomy (for example), I realise that we sometimes treat congregational prayer as a way to share information: “Lord, we pray for Brother Hurtveld who needed his appendix taken out this past Friday and who is now recovering comfortably at home…” It would be far better to make a longer announcement prior to the prayer.
In his aforementioned lecture, Spurgeon also notes that “another fault… to be avoided in prayer is an unhallowed and sickening superabundance of endearing words” (56). He says that an address like “Dear Lord” is sometimes repeated endlessly in a prayer—or “Father” or “Almighty God” or some other name. Here Spurgeon cautions against breaking the third commandment in prayer: “God’s name is not to be a stop-gap to make up for our want of words” (57)
Sometimes people who are praying aloud will use their prayer as a time to ‘preach’ or to share a message with the listeners. Parents sometimes do this, when after a particularly riotous mealtime they rebuke their children through prayer: “God, you are surely not pleased with the terrible and disgraceful behaviour of this family…”
The Shortcomings of a Long Prayer
We said that a person’s public prayers should arise out of their living relationship with God. Even so, there should also be a difference in how we pray when on our own, and when we’re with others. This relates to the length of our prayers. You cannot pray too long in private, but in public, it is fitting to be succinct.
Some suggest that a public prayer should not be no more than ten minutes long. I don’t agree, but I will caution those who are leading in prayer that when a prayer becomes too long, it becomes difficult to stay focused.
As words multiply, so does the likelihood of getting careless or lapsing into repetitive language.
Spurgeon is again pointed with his rebuke that applies not just to ministers but to teachers and elders and parents: “Alas! For those who have to listen to pastors who pray in public for five-and-twenty minutes, and then ask God to forgive their ‘shortcomings’!” (61).
When we’re praying, not everything needs to be said every time. Next week we’ll be in church again. Tomorrow evening, we’ll again have family devotions. There will be another pastoral visit. So keep it short-ish.
From the Heart
Pointing out the various pitfalls of public prayers can make the whole activity seem too fraught with difficulty to be attempted by most. That is certainly not the case!
Let me simply underline these truths: When you pray aloud, pray with confidence, sincerity, and due reflection. Always remain aware of what prayer is: it is communion with the holy God. When we pray, our words should be thoughtfully directed toward him as we offer up our shared sorrows and joys.
Next time we’ll explore the activity of adoring God through our public prayers.
Andrew W. Blackwood, Leading in Public Prayer (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1958).
Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954).