Moving Away from Faithless, Self-Centered Prayers: Towards the ‘True Disciple’s Prayer’

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By Bassem Melki

“My Father, hallowed be my name, my kingdom come, my will be done, hopefully also in heaven as it is on earth. Give me today and everyday what I am entitled to. Help my debtors repay me their debts as I have repaid You my debts (if any). Lead me into your tests for I am ready and strong to face them and prove to you how strong and faithful I am, and, should You see the need, deliver me from evil, but I am ok.”

-an opposite version of the Lord’s Prayer

We might not bluntly pray this way, but we might have prayed, or heard prayers, along this line of self-centered attitude. We see it in the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:10. Prayers, if not careful, can become predominantly about what God should do for us. They can become full of commands like, ‘bless me, oh Lord…, give me…, take away…, open doors…, fix for me…,” and so on. Other prayers (and I’m sure you have heard them) are about telling others (those who are listening) what to do. Perhaps more often than not, prayers have become merely wishful thoughts on behalf of others.

One pastor told me recently that prayer is about ‘bringing God into the mission that we are doing.’ Hmm!? I can understand the beautiful intention of allowing God into our world, but isn’t prayer exactly the opposite? Isn’t it about us joining God’s mission and aligning ourselves with what He is doing?

“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. This is how you should pray

‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.’” (Matthew 6:7-9).

(I have a confession to make. I have almost never prayed the so-called Lord’s Prayer other than by reciting it with others on occasions.)

Although there is room for expressing our needs and wants to God, the more important thing to think about is how we can position ourselves in prayer to understand who we are and who God is. For example, instead of asking “God give me wisdom,” we can understand our position as humans before God by rephrasing our prayers to reflect an attitude that says, “I am in need of Your wisdom.” This will inspire our prayers to become more confessional, shape our attitudes to become humbler, guide our desires to match God’s desires, and direct our wills to conform to His will. We seek His Kingdom and not ours.

Listening to our own prayers and examining them can help us understand what is going on in our hearts and reveal how we view God. For example, when Jonah prayed in Chapter 4:1-6, God asked him if his feelings were right. When we examine our prayers and emotions, we start a journey of transformation as we discover what type of a relationship we have with God and how it can grow. How and what we pray expresses our real faith, theology, motives, and attitude towards God.

Just before this prayer in Luke 11:1, Scripture tells us that, “Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” Up to this point, in Luke’s gospel, only Jesus is recorded praying. The disciples had not prayed yet. Now they are asking Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” The question is, “Why now?” And why did Jesus wait to this point to give instructions? Maybe the disciples are asking Jesus if they are ready for that next phase of their apprenticeship. Or was it the experience that led them to recognize that to have the power of Jesus to heal and restore, they needed to learn to pray to the Father like Jesus.

A few thoughts and key questions about this passage to help us rethink our prayers:

-What is the role of imitation and practice?

Children learn how to pray by following the example of older family members, or maybe they are taught by what they hear in Sunday School classes or during the blessing before family meals. Some of us learn from prayers we hear in church. Let us ask Jesus again, ‘teach me how to pray.’ And this is a prayer in itself that might need to be asked over and over as times and seasons change.

Why was ‘prayer’ the only thing they asked Jesus to teach them?

It seems the disciples saw how Jesus sought direction and tested His ministry in prayer. It was in those times of prayer that Jesus kept His focus upon His calling and commission. Jesus’s prayer life was so profound that they didn’t ask Him to teach them to do anything else in the course of His life. They didn’t ask Him to teach them to do miracles or how to preach or to heal or how to study Scripture or do mission trips, but rather they wanted to go straight to the source of Jesus’s power and direction – prayer.

-Why do we struggle to pray?

Prayer is putting yourself in the light of the Father in order to see clearly. I invite all of us to meet the Divine and discover what happens. Prayer can be a time of self-reflection in light of the Holy One, in light of the word of God, and then allowing the Holy Spirit to work. It is a time to clear out all the voices, outside and within, to hear the Father’s voice and will. And yet, many who follow Jesus repeatedly confess that the spiritual discipline they struggle with most is prayer. However, this form of communion with God and intimate relationship is the foundation for everything else we do as followers of Jesus. Perhaps we struggle because with think of prayer as a duty and not as communion with God.

– Where does ‘learning to pray’ fit in theological education at ABTS?

We see prayer as a very important foundation of a Christian life, and it is taught as a Spiritual Discipline; however, we do want our students to learn from Jesus Himself the art of prayer. What strikes me is that the topic of learning to pray was raised by the disciples, and not Jesus. Maybe the reason for this is that, as strongly as Jesus believed in prayer and practiced it personally, He wanted the disciples to conclude on their own how important prayer is for living communally with Him. I believe that Jesus was ready and willing to teach on prayer, but only when His disciples were eager to learn. Motivation cannot be higher for learning than when the student asks the teacher to teach. To what extent is our life of prayer impacting others and motivating them to see the need to pray? So, when you are ready, you can ask, “Lord, teach me to pray”, or even as a church, ask, “teach us to pray.”

Perhaps this piece of Scripture has been incorrectly called ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ Instead, we might remember those who requested the prayer in the first place and call it ‘The True Disciple’s Prayer.’

Bassem Melki is Dean of Faculty and Leader of Peacemaking Initiatives at ABTS. This past year he has learned more about the Bible than he ever could have imagined by raising a small collection of sheep, goats, and hens.

4 Comments

  1. Linda C Martinez says:

    Thank you for the reminder of the deeper meaning and purpose of prayer. I’ve also been greatly helped by “Gleanings From Paul” by A.W. Pink, a study on Paul’s God honoring prayers. May the Lord continue to strengthen and encourage you!

  2. bmelki says:

    Thank you Linda for your prayer and encouragement, I’ll make sure also to check A.W. Pink

  3. David King says:

    Thank you, Brother Bassem, for this excellent and helpful article on prayer. It was a blessing to me to read it. For more on the subject (and I know there are many books) you might like to see my seminar on prayer called “God’s Lightning+ at freebiblecommentary.org under discipleship materials. Thank you for your teaching at ABTS.

  4. bmelki says:

    Thank you David for your encouraging reply, i checked the material you provided and were very enriching, i will continue to probe

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