Lord, Teach Us to Pray
Updated: Jul 22, 2022
My 9-year-old daughter prayed for dinner the other night. She thanked God for being good and giving us some wonderful food and then she said, “Help it to be nourishment to our bodies.” Nourishment?! Where’d that come from? She’s never said the word nourishment in her entire life. Who taught her to pray like that?
Who taught you to pray? I don’t mean a formal sit-down lesson. I mean, where did you catch the language you use in your prayers? Who are the men and women whose prayers have shaped your own? That’s how we learn, and in one sense, it’s a beautiful thing in the sight of the Lord.
However, when you read the Bible, you begin to realize our prayers hardly sound anything like the prayers we find recorded there. And it’s not simply a matter of time and culture differences. We have not learned prayer from the Bible. Have you ever heard someone pray like this...
Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day! (Psalm 74:22, ESV)
Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1, ESV)
Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes… Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. (Gen. 18:27, 30)
How come we don’t pray like this anymore? I am convinced it is because our prayers have become centered on us instead of on God himself. We need to recover a God-centeredness in the way that we pray. Here are three suggestions, based on the prayers we find in Scripture, that have significantly changed the way that I pray for the better.
Appeal to God’s Glory
During his years of leadership, Moses consistently interceded to God on behalf of the stubborn, sinful, grumbling, faithless people of Israel. In Exodus 32, when they were at the foot of Mt. Sinai worshipping a golden calf, God was telling Moses about his plans to destroy them. But Moses interceded. “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people.” (Exo. 32:12, ESV)
Do you see what Moses is doing here? He grounds his requests in God’s desire to glorify himself. He appeals to God’s reputation among the nations of the earth. We see these kinds of prayers scattered all throughout Scripture. Take, for example, Joshua pleading with the Lord to give the Israelites victory in the Promised Land: “And what will you do for your great name?” (Josh. 7:9) Or David reasoning with God that he cannot praise the Lord if he’s dead: “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:4-5)
So, we find that biblical, God-centered prayers ground requests in God’s desire to glorify himself. Often, during our Wednesday evening prayer time at church, we will ask God to answer our prayers in such a way that others would know that he had stepped in. Thus, God would gain more glory for himself in the hearts and minds of those who witness the answer.
Appeal to God’s Character
Another God-centered approach we find in Scripture is appealing to God’s character. The men and women in the Bible often ask God to act in accordance with his own nature, which he has revealed to them.
Consider Abraham’s appeal to God’s justice in his prayer for the people of Sodom: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:23-25)
Our prayers can become more God-centered if we take what God has told us about himself in the Bible and use those traits as the ground for our requests of him. Ask God to act according to his great mercy, generosity, love, compassion, or even his righteous wrath. In so doing, you will be honoring God by coming to him as a student of his nature, and of his Word.
Appeal to God’s Promises
Finally, we find the saints of the Bible appealing to God’s promises. These examples are easy to spot because often they are asking God to remember something. Returning to Moses’s prayer on Mount Sinai, we read his request for God to “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” (Exo. 32:13) David utilizes this as well: “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope.” (Psalm 119:49)
It is not as though these men thought God had forgotten his word. That’s impossible. Rather, they were calling on God to act according to his promises—to bring about their fulfillment, to not let them fail. Again, this God-centered kind of prayer honors God by coming to him on the grounds of his own words and trusting him as the ultimate promise-keeper.
The beauty of the prayers we find in the Bible is that God put them there. God intentionally inspired the authors to record them and preserve them for us to read. One massive implication of this is that God himself is teaching us how to approach him in prayer! If you take a listen to most of the prayers in worship services or Bible studies today, you will quickly see, we have not learned prayer from God. Consequently, our prayers have become centered on ourselves. But if we take the time to go back to God’s own words, and to learn to pray from the examples he has given us, our prayers will become God-centered. So, let us say with the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1)
* This article was adapted from chapter two in John's book God-Centered Christianity: the Bible's Antidote for Self-Centered Religion