If you’ve ever started to pray, then you’ve struggled with prayer.
What do I say? How long should I pray? Is God even listening? What if I do it wrong?
I struggle as well, and I’ve got my own questions, but here are a few things I know:
- His answers don’t depend on the length of my prayers;
- He cares not at all for how good my prayers sound; and
- He’s not waiting on me to tell him what I need so he can make the right decision.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).
We’ve all fidgeted in our pews when some good Christian delivered a sermon disguised as a prayer, wondering how in the world somebody could pray for that long. And we’ve been tempted to judge someone’s motivation when he seemed a little too concerned about sounding eloquent as he prayed.
And then I’ve heard some new Christians whom we haven’t corrupted yet who pray some child-like prayers that I’m pretty sure get in God’s heart more than mine. They don’t know enough to ask the Lord to guide, guard, and direct us, but it seems like they’re talking to God like a little child with her daddy.
Please don’t get the impression that you can learn to pray by following a few rules—prayer doesn’t work that way—but here are some things that Jesus seems to be telling us.
Avoid the cliché-filled prayer. Jesus says not to use “empty phrases,” which is what a cliché is. Whatever we do repeatedly risks becoming meaningless. You can probably do your morning, get-ready-for-the-day routine without thinking about each step because you’ve done it a thousand times. Unfortunately, the same thing happens to our prayers. I’ve gotten to the end of a fairly lengthy prayer and realized I wasn’t thinking at all about what I said. So here’s a thought: slow down, and think about every word that you say.
Relax. God’s not looking for perfection. He doesn’t have his checklist out like a college professor making sure you meet all of his requirements. A good place to start is just to make sure you’re speaking to God from your heart . . . that you’re being honest with him. He already knows you were mean to the kids this morning, so why not talk to him about it? The anger you’ve got in your heart? He knew about that before he even created you, so don’t try to hide it from him. Just talk to him.
Pray a really short prayer, or a really long one—it doesn’t matter. Some of your prayers will last about fifteen seconds as you walk the sidewalk to your front door in the evening. Others might last as long it takes you to fall asleep, or as long as the drive is to work or the grocery store. And then you’ll have some that are like the ones Jesus prayed when he went off into the wilderness—a time of uninterrupted, focused communion with the Lord. But whatever you do, don’t worry about the length. Pray from your heart . . . God hears the ten-second prayer just like he hears the thirty-minute one.
My daughter’s in college now, and not once have I been disappointed to see her name and number pop up on my phone. I just like to hear her voice.
I suspect that’s something like what God thinks when we whisper his name in prayer.