Don’t pray while ignoring broken relationships. Jesus told His disciples that if someone has unresolved conflict while they are on the way to engage in spiritual practices, that person should first stop and resolve the conflict before proceeding (matthew 5:24). So if I spout unkind words at my co-worker, or if a family member hurts my feelings, I need to go make things right before showing up for worship. Certainly, not everyone will respond to attempts at reconciliation (romans 12:18). Nevertheless, we should initiate restoration—whether we are the offended or offender—before approaching God in worship (matthew 18:15).
Don’t pray to get human praise. Jesus had little tolerance for people who prayed, fasted, and gave money making a big show so everyone would see their good works and applaud their spirituality. Prayers should focus on the greatness of God, not on how great we are. Jesus told one of His audiences, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly
I tell you, they have received their reward in full” matthew 6:5). Showing off is a horrible reason to pray. And who wants to be around a self-righteous person? People who pray to improve their standing in the court of public opinion receive nothing more from God, having already been paid in full in the form of human applause.
Don’t be long-winded or repeat words meaninglessly. Jesus also criticized those who pray long prayers in public and engage in meaningless repetition (matthew 6:7). So a good rule of thumb is “short prayers in public, long prayers in private.”It’s tempting to read Jesus’s words about repetition as a warning against praying any written-out prayers or repeating what we’ve prayed in the past. Yet the problem is not in the repetition, but in the word “meaninglessly.” The danger in repetition is in allowing our brains to settle into “neutral” so we fail to actually think about what we’re praying.
For many years I struggled much more than I do now in prayer. But during a retreat one year, a friend gave me a blank notebook and encouraged me to write out my prayers. By doing so, I now find it much easier to stay focused in my communing with God.
I’m not alone in this. The psalmists—those who wrote much of the poetry we find in the Bible—wrote out some of their prayers, and God’s people collected them through time. We know this collection today as the book of Psalms. Often we lack the right words, but the Hebrews’ prayer and hymnbook can help us again and again. So rather than eschewing such pre-formed and repeated prayers, we should guard against developing a callousness that can come from familiarity.
The Psalms contain timeless prayers that express every human emotion. Overwhelmed by God’s greatness? Psalm 150 lists ways to praise. Needing comfort? Psalm 23 assures that “the Lord is my shepherd” (v. 1). Angry about injustice? Psalm 2 expresses the fruitlessness of the nations conspiring against God. Grieving over injury caused by the human tongue? Psalm 12 expresses such a lament. Feeling guilty? Psalm 51 is a confession of sin, probably penned by David after he violated Bathsheba.
When we don’t know how to express ourselves to the Lord, the Psalms provide the words we’re having difficulty forming.
Don’t pray only for your own needs. In the first-century Greco-Roman world in which Paul lived, Christianity was wildly unpopular. Arrested on many occasions for preaching the good news about Christ, he served a lot of jail time. And while sitting in an unlit cell one day, probably in Rome, he received a financial gift with a letter from a church he’d started with a group of praying women in the city of Philippi (acts 16:13–14). So Paul wrote them an epistle, known to us as the New Testament book of Philippians, in which he expressed his gratitude. And in it he described how he had been praying for them: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ— to the glory and praise of God” (philippians 1:9–11). Notice how he focused on their spiritual needs and ultimately that God would be glorified. That’s a great model for our priority in prayer.