Praying in public is hard enough. The last thing we need is to become prayer snobs who nitpick the pastoral prayer on Sunday morning and critique it for lack of eloquence. I take great comfort in the fact that our prayers are received by our heavenly Father, not because of their clever vocabulary, logical structure, or fervent delivery, but merely because they are prayed in the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Our Father in heaven receives our prayers with delight, much like we would receive the crayon masterpieces produced by our son or daughter, not because our toddler is the next Picasso but because our child is our child. Revelation 5:8 describes the prayers of the saints as incense, implying that they are precious and pleasing to God.
But while public prayer is primarily directed upward to God, it is also heard horizontally by the congregation. Let’s say you are an elder in your church and you’ve been scheduled to offer the prayer during next Sunday’s worship service. You have an opportunity to edify your brothers and sisters in Christ when you pray out loud, to model conversation with God rooted in the gospel.
If we are brutally honest, some of our public prayers sound like someone reading a shopping list: “Our heavenly Father, Aaron is looking for a job, Brook is still battling cancer, and Christina needs five pounds of flour, three tomatoes, and a bottle of grapefruit juice.” We would read a list of athletic statistics or stock market updates with more emotion (and more interest). At one level, this is as it should be. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” No need to complicate it. Prayer is expressing our desires to God. But is it really the case that our desires are limited to physical health crises, veiled announcements of upcoming church programs, and politicized current events? “Lord, you know that Deanna is going in for surgery this Thursday afternoon, that we need more volunteers, or we will have to shut down the youth group, and that the latest polls indicate that we are living in the last days.” Children and new believers are sitting in the pews, listening to us pray out loud and their understanding of what prayer is about is being shaped by what they hear us praying.
Don’t get me wrong: I think having a written list of requests is very helpful. There’s no shame in opening one eye during your prayer and looking at the list so you don’t forget to mention people by name. But some of us need to ask: am I praying or am I reading? Prayer involves personal engagement. When I pray, I am speaking to my Father in heaven. He is truly listening. Some of our prayers sound like we are not speaking to anyone who is actually there. Others need to ask: am I praying or am I performing? It’s tempting to use public prayer as a time to impress the person who gave us the prayer request (I’ll say it just this way with just the right tone of voice so that she knows I care). You should just pray to an audience of One, and there’s no need to impress Him. When you pray, you don’t need to feel as if your prayer is the final word on any subject. Jesus’ prayers from the cross were ‘the’ prayers, the prayers that undergird all our prayers, making our prayers effectual. My prayer is merely ‘a’ prayer.
I’ve known some churches to outlaw any physical health requests at prayer meetings. You can understand why. The meeting becomes an organ recital in which we pray for Eddie’s kidney stones, Flora’s gall bladder, and Gina’s heart. The first 40 minutes are taken up with going around the circle and telling each other what you are going to pray for, and then 20 minutes are spent repeating everything to God (who apparently wasn’t listening in on the first 40). We end up hearing the health updates twice. I’ve never had any formal medical training but I kind of feel like I know what can go wrong with the human body just by showing up to prayer meetings all my life. Our children grow up thinking that prayer is primarily about the human body. If you read the great prayers in the Bible, health needs are rare (and I bet people in the ancient world got sick all the time). In Genesis 18 Abraham prays for mercy for the city of Sodom. In Exodus 33 Moses prays for mercy for the people of Israel. In 1 Kings 8, Solomon prays a wide-ranging prayer that spends a lot of time talking to God about God, about God’s promises, about forgiveness, and about “all the peoples of the earth” coming to know and fear God. The closest King Solomon gets to a health care request is his mention of “pestilence” in verse 37. Our physical needs matter to Jesus. He spent a lot of time healing people. So, I think outlawing such requests is an over-reaction. My point here is to encourage us to pray prayers with as wide a scope as the mission of Jesus. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found. Yes, the curse can be detected in the breakdown of our bodies, but it can also be detected in the breakdown of our neighbourhoods and workplaces.
For years I have benefited from the ACTS acronym in prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Let me recommend another good acronym: AMPS. I’m not an electrician, but I’m hoping this acronym will be a powerful reminder.
A is for speaking About God.
Speaking to God about God is not an attempt to butter God up, it’s about reminding myself who it is I’m praying to. To mention one or two attributes of God helps situate my prayer: “Sovereign and merciful God, you have all authority and power; you also are full of compassion, and so we bring to you Gina’s heart condition because it is quite serious.”
M is for mission.
May our prayers increasingly be more and more outwardly facing, more and more about the extension of the gospel into every language and every postal code. Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray that the message of the Lord would spread rapidly.
P is for physical needs.
In addition to physical health requests, we might do well to pray generally for those suffering from mental illness, and those with chronic health conditions which the sufferers have endured for so long that they no longer mention it.
S is for spiritual growth.
This is probably the most neglected subject in our public prayers. Consider how Paul prays in Ephesians 1:16–18, praying that God would give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened so they would know the hope to which God had called them. How seldom do I pray out loud for people along those lines! We have an incredible opportunity in public prayer to voice to God our desire to see these necessary sanctifying changes taking place in the lives of our people.
Earlier I mentioned that Jesus prayed from the cross. They were short prayers, primarily directed to His Father, but spoken knowing full well that John and the women at the foot of the cross were listening. Jesus spoke to God about God – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He spoke about His mission – “It is finished.” He spoke about His physical needs – “I thirst.” And in His final prayer, Jesus entrusted His spirit into His Father’s hands. This same Jesus is praying for us, and it’s in His name that we bring our prayers, both public and private, whether eloquent or plain. In Christ, our prayers, with all their redundancy and predictability, ascend to heaven as fragrant and precious incense before the throne of God.