Monday, March 5, 2012

Cross Training: Prayer

Time to continue my series exploring No Greater Love Ministries' Cross Training discipleship method. In this post we'll discuss Prayer.

The above illustration can help you understand Cross Training. The vertical part of the cross represents how we relate to God, the horizontal crossbeam how we relate to others. Of course, these four elements are just a part of the total package. There are lots more ways to relate to God and to men. Cross Training focuses on just these four elements because they are essential parts of Christian discipleship.

We start at the bottom of the cross. The foundation of our relationship with God is Study. To really know God, you must know His Word. And you do want to know Him, lest you be very disappointed come Judgment Day. Jesus strongly indicates that not knowing Him means being left out of the Kingdom. (Matthew 7:21-23) A solid understanding of the Bible is essential to a successful, mature Christian life. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) I discuss this topic in much more detail here.

At the top of the cross is Prayer. This is the way we connect with our heavenly Father. Prayer isn't some mysterious practice, only available to the pious. You don't have to possess some special standing or position. There aren't secret magical phrases to be memorized and repeated. A book of written prayers to be recited isn't required, though some believers do find one helpful.

Prayer is simply communication with God. Some people seem to think God only understands Elizabethan English, filled with thees and thous. Others say He won't hear a sinner's prayer. 
I'm thankful that neither of those things is true. If He doesn't hear sinners, we're all in trouble, 'cause without Him none of us is righteous. The Bible says Christ Jesus came to earth in order to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15) And God delights to hear from us, no matter what language we speak. He really doesn't care how you approach prayer - the important thing is that you spend time communicating with God on a regular basis.

Jesus' disciples once asked Him to teach them to pray, and He responded by teaching them what we now call the Lord's Prayer. (Luke 11:1-4) Some faith traditions put a lot of emphasis on repeating this prayer regularly. Other churches rarely even mention it. I believe both of these approaches are kind of missing what the Lord Jesus intended. If we simply ignore Jesus' teaching on prayer, there's a good chance our prayer life will be ineffective. On the other hand, just repeating the same words over and over by rote without even considering what we're saying doesn't necessarily mean God will hear and respond.

Jesus warned against that approach to prayer just before He gave us the Lord's Prayer.
"When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this: Our Father in heaven..." (Matthew 6:7-9 NLT) So what's the point of the Lord's Prayer?

I think there are a couple of applications. It's certainly unifying to have an entire congregation pray this prayer together publicly. And in ecumenical gatherings with believers from many different Christian traditions, praying the Lord's Prayer as a group can really help pull everybody together. But I don't believe Jesus intended us to repeat this prayer as our individual approach to God. Instead, I think He gave it to us as an outline for personal prayer. Each clause indicates important things to include when we pray.

Here's a quick summary:  
Our Father in heaven = Approach God based on relationship.  
Hallowed be Thy name = Give Him praise and honor. 
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done... = We are to line up our desires with His. 
Give us this day our daily bread = Bring your requests to the Lord. 
Forgive we forgive (others) = Repent of your sins, and forgive as you've been forgiven.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil = Pray for victory over flesh and the devil.
Thine is the kingdom... = Finish as you began, giving God all the glory.

NGL has a simple way to remember things to include in our prayers. The acronym ACTS is a memory aid, representing Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. These things are all included in the Lord's Prayer, and this is a pretty good order in which to pray.
Adoration: Start out giving by God glory
Confession: Admit and repent of your sins
Thanksgiving: Thank God for the blessings in your life
Supplication: Finally, present your needs and desires to Him

Praying is not just about asking for stuff. God is not the great Santa Claus in the sky, just waiting to provide every want we might have. According to the Bible, Christians are destined to develop the character of Jesus. (Romans 8:29) God's purpose is for us to become faithful disciples of Christ. When we pray and listen, God gives us understanding and direction to help us mature. 

I see prayer as a conversation - and a conversation is not one-sided. God desires to communicate with His children, and sometimes we won't shut up long enough to hear Him. There are several ways God speaks to believers today. That topic is way too long of a teaching for this post so I'll save it for another time.

But we all need to learn to listen when we pray, so here's the number one way God speaks to people today: through His Word. That's why regular Bible reading is so important. It's an invaluable source of wisdom. (James 3:17) Study is the foundation of our relationship with God; Prayer is our line of communication with Him. Practicing these two disciplines regularly helps us develop a genuine relationship with our heavenly Father. And He's promised when we seek Him with all our hearts, we will definitely find Him. (Jeremiah 29:13) And the journey is a lifelong adventure.

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