The following post is part of our ‘The Work of the PCA Elder’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.
I was almost 30 and had been in the Marine Corps for about a decade when God abruptly entered my life in a Damascus Road type of experience. The spiritual change was immediate, but my ignorance of spiritual things was entrenched. I knew nothing about God except that He was real, He was personal, and that I was His. These basic realizations made prayer the most natural thing in the world for me.
From the point of my conversion forward, I wanted to do everything in my life by reference to God, and so I needed to be constantly talking to Him. I was naïve and overwhelmed, but I had not yet thought that I could pray wrongly. It was clear to me that God was God and I was not; therefore, I had no problem with deferring to Him, no real desire to get my own way, and no inclination to ask merely for the benefits package. However, as I learned more and became increasingly exposed to private and public prayer, I realized that my way of doing it had some deficiencies.
How did this realization hit? First, I read about true prayer in the Bible. Second, I observed or experienced some issues with prayer, particularly with Session and in corporate prayer gatherings. Third, I recognized that the biblical condemnations of praying wrongly might apply in different ways to committed Christians.
Below are some of the errors in prayer that I have witnessed or fallen into over the course of Christian life. My hope is that this brief list highlights some things all of us – and especially us ruling elders – need to be careful about while trying to serve the church.
The first of these “prerrors” (if I can coin the term) is hypocrisy. In Matthew 6:5, Christ warns us not to pray like the hypocrites, who are people who like to be seen publicly as holy and righteous. Because they are looking for public approval, they do not gain God’s approval. I do not think I have seen an awful lot of hypocritical grand-standing in PCA churches, but I have experienced a different problem with hypocrisy as an elder. The problem on my mind is that the awareness of my own tendency toward hypocrisy can paralyze me.
My sin makes me want not to pray, especially publicly, because I am aware of the all-too-present danger of hypocrisy. I know intellectually that this paralysis can only happen if I am listening to the enemy and not to God, so I have found a couple of practices that help with addressing this. I have to first constantly remind myself that when the paralysis strikes, it is because I am adopting a works-oriented view of myself. Of course I am not good enough on my own to earn God’s approval. Christ alone is perfectly righteous, but I enjoy that perfect righteousness of Christ as my own through faith in Him. To allow remaining sin to cripple me in my walk and duties is concomitant to denying that my name is written on His hand. Then I think about 1 John 1:9, which says that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Reminding myself that I am judged by Jesus’ performance and not my own, and confessing my sins without reservation, have helped me deal with my feeling of hypocrisy and to pray publicly without this paralyzing self-focus.
The second prerror is vain repetition. God denounces this in Matthew 6:7, where Christ cautions His disciples against imitating the babbling of Gentiles and pagans, who say meaningless words and have meaningless practices. By contrast, the Christian is here called to pray with faith and trust, enjoying a freedom of expression like that which exists between a child and a loving father who already knows that child’s needs.
I have not experienced very much of the kind of vain repetition described in Matthew, either, but I do think it is relatively common to engage in useless prayer – vain prayer – because it is essentially thoughtless. Unless you are training children through repetition, offering the same one-line prayer over a meal can become meaningless over time. Much more significant – and even more common for elders, in my experience – in terms of vain and showy prayers is praying to people while (only) ostensibly praying to God. It is meaningless and shameful to characterize what really amounts to a lecture to the crowd as prayer. There have been times that I have had to stop “praying” like that and speak directly to the brothers at a session meeting in order that I might return to actual prayer, because what I had really been doing was trying to influence them with my words. There is no question in my mind that lecturing others through the thin veil of public prayer is inappropriate and repugnant; it is not prayer, and it needs to be guarded against.
The third prerror is selfishness. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” There is nothing wrong with petitioning God for some blessing in our lives; the problem which James addressed is a heart-problem of motivation. We have all certainly seen our share of selfish prayers, but one of the most egregious I have seen is from a man who intentionally violated a housing covenant by erecting a restricted structure. He bragged at a small group that by the time the neighbors found out, it would be too late to do anything about it. People were flabbergasted by this man’s brazenness, and even moreso when he was sued and spent the next year asking people to pray for his trouble.
Recognizing that all petitions are fundamentally requests from us to God for Him to do something because we want it or we think it is right, I nevertheless sometimes confuse fatalism with faith. For example, I have caught myself sometimes falling into the habit of not even really meaning what I am asking for because I know that God will get it right. I do not want to pray selfishly, so I leave it to Him to sort out and just wait for the outcome to materialize. That’s not faith, but fatalism. In my attempts to avoid presumption, I have lost all confidence as I approach God’s throne of grace for help in times of need. In James 5, God assures us that the fervent prayer of the righteous man “availeth much.” In James 1, though the subject at-hand is wisdom in particular, we are told to ask without doubting. Faith entails both asking and accepting. I love the aphorism that in prayer we get everything we would have prayed for if we knew everything God knows. While it is doubtless true, I have also had to guard against allowing it to make me forget that the Bible is clear on the efficacy of prayer and how prayer is rightly oriented.
The fourth prerror is doing too much talking and not enough listening while praying. Psalm 119 says, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” It has become obvious to me now that the unbridled communication I enjoyed when I was first saved was pretty much unidirectional. I talked and talked and saw the hand of God everywhere, but it took over a year for me to begin to listen well and see that the Word of God was giving me detailed answers to many of my prayers. The most intimate prayer I can have now comes when I am reading the Bible and literally praying it or interrogating it for its application to the concerns and petitions I have on my heart. At such times, I am not just talking, I am listening. The way Tim Keller strings together the thinking of Ed Clowney, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and others to reach this same conclusion is well worth hearing, so I commend the Preaching Christ in a Post-modern World seminar to any PCA elder with the confidence that it will enrich his personal and corporate prayer life.
Given more space I would share my observations about lack of persistence in prayer, the effects of distraction, and so on, but I will close with this personal reflection. When I was first saved, I loved talking to God and seeing Him work. I still do. Yet, I now see that there is a lot to be gained from a little structure, like actually having a regular quiet time where I pray the Bible. I am sure that intentionally waiting upon Him does not interfere with Him hearing me, and it certainly does not stop me from seeing Him constantly at work, but it absolutely helps me to hear Him better and makes me more aware of what I am doing when I am trying to serve the church.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2).