My children often say to me, “Dad, let’s pray together.” And I always say, “Alright… you start. What do you want to pray about?” I put that on them because this, to me, is the most important question. I hope that they will learn something by thinking about that question. And so the dialog with my children usually goes something like this… “I want to pray that I get to watch TV all day tomorrow!” And I say, “OK, but what do you think God’s answer to that would be? Don’t you think he might say something like, ‘It would be better for you to help your parents with some house work as well!’” And they get that look on their face like “Is God on my side or what!?” But then they say “Fine… I want to pray that my friends will come and play tomorrow!” And I say, “OK, but let’s think… maybe they’ve already made a commitment to do something else. Would it be right for God to cause them to break their commitment so that He can answer your prayer? You know it’s not good to break your word. You can pray that prayer, but just remember that there may be a good reason it won’t happen.” My son kind of nods his head. But it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of prayer we’re allowed to say!? He continues… “How about I pray that tomorrow I won’t lose my temper like I did earlier today?” And I say, “Now that is a fantastic prayer! Let’s pray that...”
It’s fairly obvious when you consider the prayers of a child that some prayers can be foolish. But of course, they don’t seem foolish to the child, perhaps until someone older and wiser points out the folly behind them. And I think, how do we know that we’re not just as foolish with our prayers, and just as blind to their folly? Indeed, we need someone “older and wiser” to guide us too. And for that we have God, who speaks to us and guides us through His Word.
I suppose that there are many good and true things we can say about prayer, and how we should pray. But the one that seems to have risen to prominence in my thinking is that we should always pray according to God’s will. That is to say that we first get to know God’s will, and then we pray in accordance, or in agreement with what we know to be His will. Notably the Bible says “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 John 5:14). To me, prayer begins with meditating on the character of God, and the Word of God in which His will, and His character, is revealed. As I did with my son, every prayer is first met with the question “What would God think of that prayer?” When we come to praying that we might not lose our temper, we know that this is something which is according to God’s will, because we know that to lose our temper is not the way we ought to behave. The Bible (and therefore God) tell us this, in James 1:19-20 for example. And we know that God’s will is for us to behave, in character, like His Son.
Jesus gave us a model for prayer, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer”. It begins with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done…” Besides the explicit phrase there of “your will be done”, everything in this prayer is an example of praying according to God’s will. Of course it is God’s will that His name be holy (Numbers 20:12 for example). And of course God desires for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done on Earth. Other examples of prayer are sometimes used as a model, such as the prayer of Jabez. It says “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” Perhaps at first glance this can sound like a prayer which we might object against saying “Well, you want your border increased, but surely that means taking from someone else’s border doesn’t it? And how would they feel about that?” But of course, this is prayed by an Israelite in the context, I believe, where he is praying according to the revealed will of God that Israel would occupy all of the land of Canaan. We wouldn’t normally presume to pray to God that we might dispossess our neighbours of their land, but in this case God had said that those neighbours were to be dispossessed as punishment for their sins (eg Deuteronomy 9:4). And then he prays that God would keep him from “harm”, which can also be translated “evil”, that it might not bring him pain. In other words, (as I might render it), to keep him from sin because sin will cause himself grief. And perhaps as Jesus would render it, (as He did in the Lord’s prayer), “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” It seems to me that every righteous prayer is an example of this principle, that we pray according to the will of God.
In closing, consider what David said in prayer when God revealed to him what His will should be for David…
For you, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. Therefore your servant has found courage to pray before you. (1 Chronicles 17:25)