Learning to Pray: Ask (Part 3 of P.R.A.Y.)
Prayer is more challenging than we’d like to admit. At its most basic elements, prayer is having a conversation with God. Sounds easy enough. But what if you don’t know what to say? What if you never hear anything from God? What if you get distracted? It’s easy to see where things fall apart. We find ourselves making the same request as the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
I’ve heard numerous different acronyms for prayer over the years. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. A couple of years ago, I read Pete Greig’s book How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People. I found this book helpful and have since started using Greig’s acronym P.R.A.Y. It stands for pause, rejoice, ask, and yield. In this four-part series, we will be exploring each one of these aspects of prayer.
If we’re honest, most of us spend the majority of our prayer time asking God for help.
That’s ok. Asking is at the heart of prayer. The word pray in Greek is proseuchomai, which has two parts: pros, meaning “toward,” and euchomai, meaning “wish or desire.” Prayer is directing our desires towards God.
The Latin for prayer is precari, which means “to entreat.” When we find ourselves in precarious positions in life, we often use prayer as a last resort. The old saying rings true: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Asking can be categorized into two parts: petition is asking for yourself, and intercession is asking for a friend.
For as much as we ask God for things, we still struggle with this form of prayer. We get tired of asking for the same thing. Maybe you feel like you are bothering God. We can feel guilty that we didn’t call on God sooner. There is a gap between the things we think we should be asking for (world peace, curing cancer, ending homelessness) and the things we actually ask for (paying bills, relief from a headache, patience in parenting). Then there is the age-old question of unanswered prayer.
We aren’t the first ones to struggle with these issues.
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to the church, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2-3). James breaks down our problem into two categories. 1. We don’t ask. 2. We ask wrongly. If you’ve given up on God, my prayer is that you would start asking again. Hold onto hope because prayer really does work.
God asks us to ask him.
The most compelling reason not to give up on prayer is that it is an invitation from God. God is a good Father who wants to give good gifts to his children. In Luke 11, Jesus instructs us to ask, seek, and knock. God wants us to come to him with our needs and desires. Not to say that requests should be the only topic of conversation. When this becomes the case, the relationship can begin to feel stale and transactional—like the college student who only calls home when he needs money. Instead, praying should open the door to a deeper relationship with God. The best gift God gives us is himself, and asking is a gateway to the Father.
In the Lord’s Prayer recorded in Luke 11:1-4, Jesus emphasizes five imperatives that all have to do with asking.
“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
Each of these five words gives us a helpful template to stretch our requests beyond the things that usually occupy our thoughts.
- Hallow—We ask God to make his name great.
- Come—We ask that heaven would break into our world.
- Give—We ask for things as simple as our next meal.
- Forgive—We ask that God would forgive us as often as we need it.
- Lead—We ask that God would lead us and deliver us from evil.
The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of asking.
If there is a wrong way to ask God, there must be a right way to ask him. In the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5-8), Jesus gives us three hints at how to approach God with our requests.
When the man in the story needs food, he doesn’t go to a stranger for help; he goes to a friend. The power of prayer lies in the fact that in Christ, we have been reconciled with God. We are no longer enemies but are adopted into the family. Therefore, we have a platform with the almighty God of the universe. He is listening. What will you say?
Eugene Peterson, in Tell it Slant, reminds us, “When we deal with God, we are not dealing with a spiritual principle, a religious idea, an ethical cause, or a mystical feeling. We are dealing personally with Jesus, who is dealing personally with us.” A helpful practice is to picture Jesus in the room with you when you lay your heart before God.
There is a massive difference between saying “I’m hungry” and “Will you give me bread?” At times we can all be a little passive-aggressive. We don’t want to ask for something directly, so we drop subtle hints along the way. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the kingdom. If you may have everything by asking in His Name, and nothing without asking, I beg you to see how absolutely vital prayer is.” If we want to see God move, we must be willing to embrace our needs and humble ourselves enough to knock on the door.
The friend asks for three loaves of bread. Not two or four, but three. Isn’t that interesting? He identified exactly how much food he needed. He walked to the precise neighbor that he knew would have the food. He knocked on the door and made the ask. The point is that specific prayers get specific answers. Many of our prayers can be so general that it’s hard to tell if God even answered them or not. Yet Jesus looks at us, like he looked at blind Bartimaeus, and says, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).
If you knew that God would answer your next prayer exactly, what would you pray for? I know God doesn’t work like this (he’s much too wise and loving to give us everything we want). But the thought exercise is helpful. It forces us to take God up on his offer to answer our prayers and solve our problems. As we mature, we’ll find more and more of our requests shifting towards other people.
Richard Foster writes in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others.” There is so much brokenness in the world around us. Policies, reason, protests, or science can’t get us out of the mess we are in. The problem is too big for us to solve on our own. So how do we change the world? We pray.
The problem is too big for us to solve on our own. So how do we change the world? We pray.
(For more from Joshua, check out joshuabranham.com.)