The reason why prayer doesn’t work for most of us is, simply, that we don’t know what we’re doing. We receive precious little instruction about prayer, about what it is and what it’s not, about our responsibility in the process, about how to apply this resource. We miss the point that we are, in fact, praying wrong; that we are in a wrong place with God and we are asking God for the wrong things—and asking them arrogantly, at that. Then, when God doesn’t jump through hoops we’ve eloquently laid out, we begin to doubt His power and even His existence, not realizing that God always answers prayer. It’s just that His answer, His acts, are in the divine realm and operate far beyond human understanding. Trusting in this process is called “faith,” a choice to operate in a realm beyond what we can see and touch and understand. But to trust in a certain knowledge that God loves us and knows what is ultimately best for us.
One of my early favorite Christian works is a book called Sense & Nonsense About Prayer by Lehman Strauss, Litt.D. Pastor Strauss passed away in 1997 and his book is no longer in print, but you can read excerpts from it here. Many of my opinions here were formed by Dr. Strauss’s writing. Prayer 101, in no particular order:
How many times have I seen some TV show, some soap opera, where
the doctors give up, shaking their heads as the music queue
swells, saying, “Now, all we can is pray.” Well, you should have
prayed in the first place. Prayer is the most powerful weapon,
the finest resource, we have. Pastor Strauss says, “Real prayer
is spiritual warfare.” Every time we drop to our knees, we are
lobbing grenades over the fence, charging forward at the enemy.
Prayer operates on faith, and if our faith was strong enough, we could accomplish miraculous wonders through Jesus Christ. But, like an athlete who rarely works out, like a musician who rarely practices, prayer, for most of us, is a rusty tool. We rarely use it, so when crisis comes, we barely even know the words. We blather on and on and demand this and demand that and pray really inappropriate and ineffective prayers and then get mad at God when He doesn’t perform the way we want Him to.
I grew up in the black church which failed, in every measurable way, to educate me properly about, well, much of anything. I realize I’m really tough on the black church, but that’s my calling. Somebody has to be the one ordained of God to call the black church to account. Having spent more than a decade growing up in the black church, I had to go to the white church—a white summer camp to be more specific—to learn the ways of God and the things of God. To get to know Him and to learn to hear His voice.
2. Unrepented Sin
One of the main reasons for ineffective prayer is unrepented
sin. Sins we are aware of, sins we've committed by accident.
Sins we're not even aware we've committed or that we've
forgotten about. The Old Testament Jews had to wait for the
annual Day of Atonement to get their records cleared. We can do
this—we SHOULD do this—every day if not several times a day.
Asking God to forgive us our sins, those we know about and those
we don't know about. Those we've forgotten. Those we've omitted.
Those habits we struggle with. Those people we struggle with.
Starting your prayer with anything but a confession of sin is an utter waste of time. I'm not sure why most ministers and even pastors don't seem to understand this and do not, in my experience, model this behavior in their public prayers. Maybe it's pride, I don't know. But your best chance at an effective prayer is to make sure you yourself are not burdened by sins that offend God.
When I pray, “Lord, please forgive my sins,” is among the very first words I share with Him. And I do this in the pulpit as well. I'm not ashamed to admit I am a sinner. I try my best and my intentions are to honor God and do right. But I'm human. I fail. And those are debts I am unable to pay. The very least I can do is admit to God my faults before demanding things of Him.
As I said, this concept is rarely, if ever, modeled from a black pulpit. This might be about arrogance or ignorance. There's not much else between those extremes. As a result, many if not most black churchgoers don't understand how ineffective prayer is without repentance.
3. Prayer Has to Be Long
This is patently untrue. This is, in fact, anti-scriptural. I’m
not sure why we, in the black church, do these endless, dull,
boring invocations at the beginning of service. This usually has
the effect of pouring water on a flame, bringing a service that
may have started well to a grinding halt while the minister
gasses on and on. A prayer of invocation is simply an invitation
to the Holy Spirit to dwell among us, in this place, at this
time. It’s not a time for long, supposedly eloquent, rambling
prayers for the mothers of children and fathers and grampas and
the sheep in the meadows and the puppies and the birds in the
air and fish in the sea. I’ve heard invocations that went on for
a half hour, the preacher just babbling on and on about Lord
visit our soldiers overseas and God look down upon the sick and
shut in and those in Africa and on Mars and so forth.
This is not what a prayer of invocation is for. And the length of your prayer has absolutely no bearing on the effectiveness of it. The prayer of a preacher who rolled over Sunday morning with a woman who is not his wife has absolutely no effectiveness. Doesn’t matter how long the man preaches or how hard he pounds on the pulpit, he is just wasting time. Perhaps we have long invocations because, well, we’ve always had long invocations. It’s what we’ve been taught. The example that has been set for us. But it’s not only wrong, it goes against the very teachings of Christ who warns us against long, repetitious, vainglorious public prayers [Matt 6:7]. Christ suggests, rather, that effective prayer be done in secret. Perhaps in quiet circles of believers not seeking attention or position within the political structure of the church.
Rather than keep our seniors and others on their feet for twenty minutes while you try and impress us with your eloquence, it’s perhaps best to pray effectively rather than for a long time. And leave the line open. Many if not most black preachers pray this long, boring prayer that people tune out, and end with “Amen,” closing the connection—which defeats the entire purpose of welcoming the Spirit in. Invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit and then leave the line open. Explain it to your folk so they get the concept.
4. Prayer Has To Be Loud
Utterly ridiculous. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve
overhead church mothers sniffing, “Humph. That man can’t even
pray.” Or, when a pulpit prayer has been particularly stirring,
“Well, that man sure can pray!” I realize this should go without
saying, but, the volume of your prayer has nothing whatsoever to
do with the effectiveness of your prayer. Praying loud is more
about you, about your emotional state and emotional needs, about
what you need to do for you, in order for you to reach the
emotional level you need to reach.
You do not need to be a great orator. You do not need to be particularly articulate, as our concept of such things pale in comparison to God’s holiness. No matter how great a show you put on, it is, at best, a pitiful Little Rascals sideshow that Jesus Christ needs to interpret for us. We cannot talk to God except that we speak to Jesus [John 14:6]. Our prayers are to Him and through Him. If the Father pays us any attention at all, it is for Jesus’ sake—not for any theatrical effort on our part.
As a teenager, I remember having shut ins (what you country folk call “lock-ins”) and praying all night. On one occasion, this sister comes over to me while I’m praying and starts screaming in my ear. PRAISE HIM! PRAISE HIM! THANYA THANKYA THANYA THANKYA THANKYA! HAH, GLORY!
I looked over at her and said, “Thank you, sister, but please stop shouting in my ear.” She said she was only trying to keep me from falling asleep. I told her I wasn’t sleeping—I was praying. Quietly. To myself. She said I shouldn’t expect a breakthrough like that and all but accused me of lying. I couldn’t possibly be praying since I wasn’t screaming at the top of my lungs.
Black Church Folk are loud. We like to be loud. But good teaching needs to go forth as well: volume doesn’t impress God. Our lives, our hearts and our motives impress God. God isn’t hard of hearing. All that blaring music and screaming—that’s about us. That’s about our emotional needs, about our culture and our traditions. Being loud is not a sin, Lord knows I like (and frankly need) to cry out to Him on occasion. But I understand that’s more about me than Him. He can hear me just fine.