the shape of leadership

Prayer Is Worth Doing Badly

The Lord’s Prayer encourages us to start where we are, in whatever spiritual condition we are

George P Wood on July 18, 2017


Several years ago, I went to lunch with friends after church. When our food arrived, all of them turned to me for a blessing on the meal. (Being called upon to pray in restaurants is a hazard of my profession.) Instead of praying myself, however, I looked to the woman on my right and said, “Tricia, will you say grace?”

Then I closed my eyes and bowed my head. Several awkward seconds of silence followed until Tricia let out what I thought was a perfectly adequate blessing. She disagreed — violently. After saying, “Amen!” she hit me on the arm and exclaimed, “Don’t ever do that again! I’ve never prayed in public in my life!”

Now, many Americans fear public speaking. Was that why Tricia was so upset? I doubt it. Her public only consisted of 10 or so friends, after all, and she spoke easily enough with them throughout the remainder of the lunch. No, I think Tricia feared praying in public because she feared saying something to God that was wrong or trite. She feared praying badly, in other words.

Many of us have the same fear. We do not pray as often as we ought to because we do not think our words are eloquent enough or our thoughts elevated enough or our spiritual state pure enough to talk to God.

Consequently, we need to remember G.K. Chesterton’s advice: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Even if we stumble to our knees and mumble through our requests, even if we talk to God inconsistently or incoherently or inconsiderately, it is better that we pray badly than that we not pray at all. Of course, it would be best if we prayed well, but that takes a lifetime of practice, and all of us must start somewhere. So why not start where we are, wherever that may be?

The most liberating truth of the spiritual life, you see, is that God does not want us to be perfect so that we can come to Him. Instead, He wants us to come to Him so that He can make us perfect. We think that God is interested in spiritually finished products: happy, healthy, holy Christians. And He is — but not only in them.

God also is interested in the process, in manufacturing saints out of sinners, believers out of skeptics, good prayers out of bad ones. That is why prayer is worth doing badly. Only by starting where we are can God take us to where He wants us to be.

And that brings us to the Lord’s Prayer, in which Christ taught us how to pray:

Even if we stumble to our knees and mumble through our requests, it is better that we pray badly than that we not pray at all.

This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:5-13).

This is a simple prayer, perfect for prayer novices but also helpful to those more adept. It identifies six steps that help us grow in relationship with God.

First, make time and space for God. Jesus’ words — “This, then, is how you should pray” — imply that we are doing so, but that if my prayer life is going badly, it’s usually because I’ve neglected to do this. So, the first step in praying — however badly — is simply to pray. In fact, if you haven’t prayed today, stop reading this article, and just do it.

You can (and should) pray to God wherever you are, but I’ve found that setting aside a regular time at a regular place to meet with God is the best way to experience Him in prayer in increasing measure.

Second, focus on God’s powerful love for you. Jesus addresses the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father in heaven.” The word heaven reminds us that God is over us, just as the sky is above the earth. God is sovereign over the world He made; He has power over it. But how does God use that power?

In the ancient world, the gods were feared because they used their power capriciously. By using the word Father, however, Jesus taught us that God uses His power lovingly, for our own good. This should motivate us to pray more, for as Jesus said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).

Third, prioritize God’s agenda for your life. Too often when we pray, our prayer is simply a to-do list for God. Like my wife asking me to clean the garage or take out the trash or walk the dogs, our prayers tend to give God our preferred agenda. Rather than doing that, our prayers should seek God’s agenda: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

In other words, before we ask God, “What will you do for me?” — we should ask Him, “What is your will for me?” Having aligned ourselves with the divine agenda, we then approach Him with what we need.

Fourth, ask God for whatever you need. “Give us today our daily bread” is and isn’t about food. It is about food insofar as food is a necessity of life. It isn’t only about bread, however, given that we have other needs. We teach our children to distinguish between need and want, and I think that applies to prayer too. The problem is that we often aren’t spiritually mature enough to know the difference ourselves.

Because of this, I believe you should simply take all your requests to God, whether you’re asking Him for bread or a BMW. The more time we spend with God in prayer and in His Word, the more He’ll help us see what we really need. And then we’ll begin to see how, when He meets our needs, He wants us to supply what is lacking in the lives of our friends and neighbors … and even enemies.

Fifth, seek God’s forgiveness (and send it to others). Forgiveness is the heart of the Christian religion, both in the receiving of it from God and the giving of it to others. As Jesus said, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus conceived of sin as a kind of debt we owe to God but cannot pay. And yet, God forgives us this debt. If He does that for us, Jesus shows, we should do it for those in debt to us.

I like to think of this as the flow-through principle: Whatever blessing God has given us should flow through us to others. It is easy enough to ask God for forgiveness. Forgiving others when they have sinned against us is much harder. Prayer helps make it easier, but constantly keeping before us the example of a loving heavenly Father.

Sixth and finally, trust God in trying times. When Jesus says, “lead us not into temptation,” He is using a term with a twofold meaning. On the one hand, the Greek term can mean temptation. On the other hand, it can mean trial. God does not tempt us, of course. Our temptations arise from within us: “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:14).

Trials are what God allows us to endure so that we can become stronger in faith. A few verses prior to this, James writes: “the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:3-4). In the sovereign power of a loving God, even trying times can be a way of conforming us to His image.

A.C. Dixon once said: “When we rely on organization, we get what organization can do; when we rely on education, we get what education can do; when we rely on eloquence, we get what eloquence can do. But when we rely on prayer, we get what God can do.” So, rely on prayer! It is worth doing, even if — perhaps especially when — you do it badly.


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