Do You Pray Like an Unbeliever?

2:43 PM

Of all religious expressions, prayer seems the most common. Hours spent on one's knees in prayer marks the devout from the nominal believer. Even the person most averse to religion may sometimes find himself offering up a prayer when life shatters around him. In my own life, I know people who live their lives how they want to, look nothing like a Christian, and confess Christ only when pressured ("What, of course I'm a Christian!"). Their Christian identity stems mostly from the Bible verse they put on their Christmas card, the "God bless" they sign at the end of a letter, and the times they pray for sick family members. Apart from that, you'd be totally shocked to discover that they think of themselves as Christians. (Really?)


This confused me for a while -- the semi-religious who don't even pretend to be religious every other second of their life but still might say, "Have you prayed about that?" or "I'll pray for you." Why do they feel comfortable praying to God when they seem offended by the mere mention of God?

It got me thinking if there's any difference between the prayers of unbelievers pretending to be believers and the prayers of believers. Not that I thought that God didn't see a difference between the prayers of His children and the prayers of masqueraders, but it convicted me to see if my prayers manifested a difference, or if, maybe, I was just as noncommittal as the next person. 

For me, prayer has always been the hardest part of my spiritual life. It's something so intimate and presumptuous, to just walk before God and talk to Him as if He isn't the eternal Being who knows every cell and every star and every hair on my head. It's also hard. It requires all my attention to sit, be still, and concentrate on the words I'm saying. So it confused me for the longest time as to why non-Christians or nominally committed Christians found no guilt or fear or hesitation in talking about prayer and praying itself. I think it boils down to this: the thought of a loving, all-powerful God is very comforting. Who wouldn't want the biggest person in and outside the universe on her side? And we can access Him 24/7 through this magical thing called prayer, no matter what you've done or what you'll do. He'll hear you. This is why many so-called "Christians" feel comfortable talking about prayer and God's blessing. It's a far less committed thing than going through a Bible study or attending church. It's just accessing good things with no one to tell you to change your beliefs or life. That's a pretty sweet deal. 

In any case, here's the list of prayers that unbelievers pray -- and that believers are often guilty of praying, too.

The Safe-and-Sound Prayer
Many traditional prayers plead for safety and protection, either for them or for loved ones. Take us out of harm's way, don't let anything hurt us, make us happy and safe so we don't fall into depression. Do you recall this prayer in Scripture? Not really. Paul and Silas didn't pray it when they got thrown into prison. Jesus didn't pray it when the Pharisees sought to kill Him. Stephen didn't pray it at the hour of his stoning. And actually, the one time I can recall any Christian praying this is when Paul pleaded three times with God to remove the thorn from His flesh. And God said no. This ought not paint for us a portrait of a cruel God who delights in our torture, for God delivered many sufferers and provided sufficient grace for all those in rough spots. This should emphasize to us that our safety and comfort zone are not top priority for God. Our well-being, yes. Our safety and comfort -- no. Those are entirely separate things. When Jesus gives the Beatitudes, He lists the poor, thirsty, and broken in spirit as those who enter the kingdom of heaven -- not the rich, well-fed, got-it-all-together people. Since we spoiled American Christians often have life pretty nice, it's not an uncommon thing for God to break us down until we become poor, thirsty, and broken in spirit. Why? Because living on the grace of God with God as our only comfort is far more amazing than living our comfortable, safe lives.

"Instead you ought to pray..." Don't pray for your and your loved ones' comfort zones to be preserved. Don't pray for safety and security. Pray that you would be counted worthy to suffer for Jesus Christ. Pray that God would make you uncomfortable so that you can see Him work in powerful ways. Pray that God would break you until you depend solely upon them. (Just from personal experience, He always answers that prayer. He also answers this prayer if you pray it for other people, too, because God's in the business of bringing down the proud and elevating the humble. So be careful.) For others already suffering, pray that they would see God's grace and sovereignty in their situation, that the Spirit Himself will comfort them, that God's will would be done, that good will come out of this.

The Impersonal Prayer
This sort of prayer only and always lifts up other people. Rarely does the petitioner pray for himself, his needs, or his situations. Prayer becomes then more like a duty, a proper response when someone contracts cancer or loses a job. It's more of a social construct to bring comfort. It always requests a positive outcome. 

"Instead you ought to pray..." It should be obvious that praying for others is not an improper prayer. On the contrary, it is a loving, proper thing to do -- a great thing to do. The thing I'm digging at is the attitude behind it, the attitude that never approaches God personally with one's own problems. It keeps God at a comfortable, un-life-changing distance. God can do miracles for Mrs. Smith's cancer or the Brinks' impending divorce, but He won't do it for me. I wouldn't know what to do with that kind of God who answers my prayers. The proper attitude is to lift up all concerns, big and small, to God, whether it deals with others or yourselves. Invite God into your deepest thoughts, dreams, and problems. Get personal.

The Good Luck Charm Prayer
Students pray this prayer before a game or a performance (the first and only time God comes up in such a group), just like a good luck charm. This prayer focuses on the big things, a last shot at getting a positive outcome: we practiced hard, there's a crowd ready and waiting, and now the only thing we need is God's blessing so that everything goes without a hitch.

"Instead you ought to pray..." This sort of attitude treats God like an impersonal force -- luck or fate. It's almost a slap in the face: we made our plans without You, we worked on this without You, and now we just want your blessing. It reminds me of "Fiddler on the Roof," when the second daughter's fiance defiantly tells Tevye, "We are not asking your permission. We will be married." And the daughter pipes up, "But we would like your blessing." Christians fall into this attitude all the time (guiltily raising my hand). We neglect to submit our plans and dreams to God by praying for guidance and instead want His blessing on whatever crazy thing we do. We don't want to hear a yes or no: we just want Him to smile fondly on our antics. Instead, we ought to pray every step of the way, asking for God's will to be done. That way, when we get to that culminating moment, we can pray for blessing and confidently expect it, since we are and have always been walking in His will. 

Instead you ought to say, 
"If the Lord wills, we will live
and do this or that."
As it is, you boast in your arrogance.
All such boasting is evil.
J A M E S  4 : 1 5 - 1 6

The Considerate Prayer
"I only pray about the big things," she told me. 

"He wants to hear about the small things!" I encouraged her.

"Yeah," she said, "but I just don't want to bother Him. I think He wants us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and take care of the things we can take care of. If we can't handle it, that's when we go to God."

This prayer seems pious, downplaying the little things that bother us and focusing only on the big important things. However, it reveals a profound misunderstanding of God's character and a proud, independent heart. Christians may not say things quite as explicit as "God helps those who helps themselves," but our attitudes and actions show otherwise. How many times have we put off praying until we made our lives more perfect and sunshiney? How many times has our guilt kept us from Him? How many times have we not confessed a sin to God during prayer, even though it tortures our soul, even though we know He knows about it? How many times do we hide from God? All these things unwittingly demonstrate a proud attitude that we can sew our own fig leaves to hide our shame, that we can fix our problems apart from God.  

"Instead you ought to pray..." Fortunately, the character of God makes it easy for hurting, proud sinners to come before Him to find help and grace. Remember how only the broken and poor enter the kingdom of heaven? He breaks us that we might totally depend on Him. The truth is, we can't handle anything. We're always incompetent and unable to haul ourselves up on our own strength. So go to God for every problem, challenge, and sin. He wants to fill you with strength.

The Fearful Prayer
Like the Considerate Prayer, this prayer either omits the small things or includes them very, very cautiously. It also doubts whether God will answer any prayer in your favor and whether or not God hears. It analyzes every word, every attitude, crushed by imperfections and sins. You pray only out of duty for fear that God will be displeased with you even further if you try to hide from Him. All your concerns seem silly and embarrassing in light of God's infinity (furthering your shame), but they burden you so much that you cannot keep them back from God. You hope He still loves you (if He ever did) after you enumerate your sins.

"Instead you ought to pray..." With confidence! God draws near to the broken-hearted and never crushes the bruised reed. Again, He grants the kingdom to the repentant and the poor in spirit. He wants His children to approach Him with almost presumptuous confidence that He listens and answers. Jesus told a parable about a widow who hammered night and day on an unjust judge's door until he wearied and heard her case. God, being infinitely more compassionate than the unjust judge, wants us to hammer Him with the same petitions until He resolves them. Indeed, He wants us to pour out our hearts before Him, casting every care upon Him. He never qualifies any of the verses on prayer with, "But come only if your request is big and worth my attention." See Him as the kindest, most attentive father who will stop whatever he's doing to listen to his three-year-old child babble on about the silliest, most boring thing. Also, pray with hope! Jesus won hope for all His people. When you pray, know that He hears. Expect an answer. Order your feelings according to the reality of the mercy, grace, and goodness of God.

Let us then with confidence 
draw near to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
H E B R E W S  4 : 1 6

The Therapist Prayer
Some people treat God like a personal therapist when no one else will listen. You come, get comfortable, and tell Him every little detail until you've talked it all out and feel better. Whenever someone criticizes you, you run back to the therapist and rehash the same thing over again. He never judges you or wants you to change: He just wants to listen compassionately and pat you on the back. You never think to change your actions or situation to solve the problem. You're a victim of the world's cruelty, and God's the only one on your side.

"Instead you ought to pray..." Pour out your heart to God, yes. He provides a refuge when the world turns its back on you, absolutely. However, God fashions victors and conquerors -- not victims. He fills the weak with strength and gives grace to those who need it (in other words, everyone). We should always seek the Lord's will in a situation and examine our hearts. We should be willing to change and go to radical limits in order to do the Lord's will. So pray that the Lord's will be done. Pray for the Spirit to convict you of any sin and to comfort you in what you do right. Express hope and love in the worst situations. Complain with thanksgiving and worship. 

The Unrepentant Prayer
The biggest misunderstanding unbelievers demonstrate is when they pray in unrepentance. Truth is, God does not hear the prayers of the unrighteous who continue in their unrighteousness. It is incredibly presumptuous to approach God dressed in your robes of sin and works as good as used tampons. It's as insulting as showing up to a formal occasion in sweaty workclothes. Christians demonstrate the same insulting attitude when they pray with unrepentant sin weighing their consciences. While Christ's righteousness allows them access to God, their prayers about other things may be hindered while they persist in sin. God does not stop listening to His unrepentant children, but He concentrates on their need for repentance.

"Instead you ought to pray..." Praying in God's will means listening to the Spirit's conviction about sin, whether you're a believer or an unbeliever. It means starting off the prayer with the most important issue on the table: your unrepentant sin. For an unbeliever, this means turning from sin and trusting in Christ for salvation. For a believer, this means grieving your sin and making things right -- i.e., stopping the sin, providing restitution if necessary, and allowing the Spirit to sanctify that area of your life. Don't hide sin or ignore it: bring it up immediately and repent right then and there.

The Pharisees' Prayer
The Pharisee prays to get attention, to promote a political point, to broadcast his piety (since nothing about his character or ability to love indicates his devotion to God). He tries to impress people when he prays aloud at church or at the dinner table, thinking about the most pious, earth-shattering insight he can cloak in humble prayer that will move the old women to tears. 

"Instead you ought to pray..." Reevaluate your attitudes and motives whenever you're asked to pray aloud or in the presence of other people. Do you freak out when asked to pray because you don't want to mess up? Do you panic when you say something cliche or uncreative? Do you copy your prayers off other people who look more "Christian" than you, just so people don't know how little you pray? Also, consider ways to take Jesus' exhortation to pray in your closet seriously. One close friend of mine offers up prayers for meals while standing in the lunch line instead of at the table so as not to draw attention to himself. 

The Lunch Prayer
That embarrassing moment when your host family rushes through a memorized prayer before you even have time to close your eyes. Or "Dear God, thank you for this day and thank you for this food. Amen." (How did thanking God for this day end up as a staple for every single unheartfelt prayer?) Or really long prayers about everything but the food in order to make up for the fact that nobody knows how to genuinely and simply thank God for the meal.

"Instead you ought to pray..." Just simply say thank you for the meal, acknowledging it as God's grace and provision. Don't rush. It's serious. Don't overcomplicate. It's as simple as "thank you."

The Self-Focused Prayer
Your own problems so immediately overwhelm you that you pray only for yourself and the friends and family closest to you. You never think to pray for your enemies, for the people on the church prayer list, for the persecuted Christians, for your political leaders, pastors, and bosses. 

"Instead you ought to pray..." For all the above-mentioned. Pray for larger things that have nothing to do with your immediate, tangible existence. For revival. For reformation. For the salvation of people who threaten your nation. For unreached people groups. For fallen Christian leaders. Our prayers are effective not because they're "our" prayers about "our" people but because our sovereign God knows every inch of everything in existence. 

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3 impressions

  1. dang, girl. love this. definitely something to keep in mind, as i most often tend to be the girl uttering the fearful prayer. ;)

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  2. Whew, did I ever need that!! I'm a Fearful/Self-Focused pray-er, but I didn't realize it until I pondered your post ... thank you so much for the insights and encouragement!

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  3. I think you would find me to be one of those "people who live their lives how they want to, look nothing like a Christian, and confess Christ only when pressured ("What, of course I'm a Christian!")."

    I did find this post particularly thought provoking. I need to read it a few more times.

    -Daniel Abbott

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