Something is amiss when Christians pray the way unbelievers pray. Of course, unbelievers do pray. They pray by the millions. Countless nominal Christians in all the nations of the world pray almost every day.
Just recently I read this about Latvia in Operation World: “Christianity is characterized by nominalism. . . . Although 60% belong to a Christian confession, only a small minority actually practice their faith.” With varying percentages, the same is true everywhere Christianity has spread. The wheat and the tares grow together. And both pray.
This was true in Jesus’s day, as in ours. The Pharisees loved God least, and prayed most. They “devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers” (Mark 12:40). “They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). And not only the Pharisees, but the Gentiles pray as well: “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
It is possible that nominal Christians learn the language of true, Christ-exalting, God-centered, sin-confessing, Spirit-dependent, promise-trusting, holiness-pursuing prayer. But I have found that it is rare for those with little love to Christ to pray as though they love him and his kingdom.
What’s Better Than Good
How then do they pray? Generally, they do not ask God to do bad things. They ask him to do good things without asking him to do the best thing. They pray as though God were the giver but not the gift. They pray for protection, and shelter, and food, and clothing, and health, and peace, and prosperity, and social justice, and comfort, and happiness.
“True Christians do not pray for less than what nominal Christians pray for. They pray for more.”
All of these good things are things the world wants. You don’t have to be born again to want these or love these. And you don’t have to be a Christian to pray for them — for yourself or for others. Every religion prays for them, more or less. So do the non-religious, when things get scary enough.
So then, what is the difference? How should Christians pray? Do they not pray for these good things?
What Makes Prayer Christian
The difference is that Christians are people who have a new nature through the new birth. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).
This new nature is formed by the presence of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to glorify Christ (John 16:14).
The Spirit forms our inner being by a new dynamic of faith in the promises of God. “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).
At the heart of this faith is a new experience of valuing Jesus above all things. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
The new Christian heart longs for God to be seen as glorious in every event and every act and every affection. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The Christian heart is eager that “Christ will be honored” in everything — every answer to every prayer (Philippians 1:20).
True Christians do not pray for less than what nominal Christians pray for. They pray for more — infinitely more. The heartbeat is always that the supremely treasured Christ be supremely magnified in answer to every prayer.
Praying for Protection
For example, every prayer for protection (if miners are trapped underground, or soldiers are going into battle, or Christians are leaving on mission, or sons and daughters are heading for college, or police are in harm’s way, or hostages are threatened with death, or children are playing where bullets fly) — every Christian prayer for protection should be a prayer for the best protection, not the least.
“Temporal dangers are shadows of eternal dangers. And the eternal ones are far more destructive.”
The best protection is protection from Satan, unbelief, sin, and eternal perishing. The Christian sees the world as it really is. Temporal dangers are shadows of eternal dangers. And the eternal ones are far more destructive. To pray for temporal protection without caring and praying for the far greater protection sounds compassionate to the world — and to nominal Christians — but not to those who live in the light.
Pray for More, Not Less
So it is with every good gift that people need. Christians do not pray for less, but for more — infinitely more.
Lord grant them shelter, both for the body and the soul — a shelter from the heat and cold and rain, and from the greater heat of your wrath, and from the cold of hate, and from the flood of destruction that comes upon all unbelief. Show them the glory of your sheltering grace.
Grant them food, Lord, and the saving knowledge that there is a “food that perishes” and a “food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). Oh feed them, dear God, on both. Grant them to taste and see that you are all-satisfying.
Lord, provide the clothing that they need. Let them not go in rags, but be attired with dignity. Show them, O Lord, that there are “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Show them that these are free — bought with the costly blood of Jesus. O Lord, let them not be found clothed in the best finery of the world, but naked at the judgment. Grant them to love the shining of your all-encompassing presence.
Father, give them health. Grant that they would be made well. Rescue them from disease. Heal them. And forbid that they would be like the nine lepers who took their healing from Jesus and never turned to thank him or love him (Luke 17:17). Let their healing be full and eternal — to the glory of the healing God. Grant that it would go well with their physical health, and even more so with their souls (3 John 2).
Great God of peace, bring peace between the warring nations — tribes, ethnicities, families, children, gangs. Overcome the bitterness and rage and revenge and hostility. Reveal the Prince of Peace. Reveal the one who shed his blood so that in him the most implacable enemies might be reconciled to God and to each other (Ephesians 2:15–16). Open their hearts to Christ and make them peacemakers.
Lord, according to the infinite riches that you have as Creator and Redeemer, grant prosperity to those who lack what they require. Provide them with what is needful, lest they be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest they be poor and steal and profane the name of God (Proverbs 30:8–9). Grant that every soul would know, O God, that it is you who gives power to prosper (Deuteronomy 8:18). Let them see this, and give you glory.
You know, O Lord, the plight of the oppressed. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Let liberty be proclaimed to the captives, and freedom to those who are unjustly bound. Bring to nothing wicked powers of tyranny. Break the arms of unjust rulers who fail in their God-appointed vocation “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). And grant to both the strong and the weak to see that justice is of the Lord, and in the end, every wrong will be set right. Oh turn the hearts of oppressor and oppressed to seek mercy from the Judge of the universe while there is time (Acts 17:31).
Lord, you are “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). We pray that you would show this comfort and mercy to those who have lost so much — the dearest earthly treasures of their lives. Leave them not, O God, hopeless in their grieving. Show them the greatness of what Christ came to do for those whose sorrows are overflowing (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). May their sorrows be the wound that opens their hearts to the everlasting healing that you offer in Christ. Show them the surpassing worth of Jesus beyond all this world gives.
Finally, Father, grant happiness. We do not desire or pray for anyone’s lasting misery or sorrow or sadness. If the pain of surgery is needed for lasting healing, we trust you with that sting. But our heart is for the lasting joy of every living soul. We do not ask for what Moses repudiated as “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25), or the “passions of the flesh that wage war against [the] soul” (1 Peter 2:11), or for the comfort of riches that turn the door of heaven into a needle’s eye (Matthew 19:24). But we ask, even for our enemies, fullness of joy at your right hand and pleasures forevermore in your presence (Psalm 16:11). Jesus died for this. May they see and receive.
Not Deterred by Nominal Critics
Nominal Christians do not usually pray this way. In fact, they will pull away from those who do. They will feel uncomfortable around such prayers. They have no real heartfelt affections for the beauty of such prayers. Such prayers feel alien.
Therefore, nominal Christians will deflect the exposure of their spiritual emptiness by twisting such prayers inside out and saying things like, “All you care about is pie in the sky.” Or, “Empty bellies don’t care about religion.” Or, “What people need is love, not religion.” Or, “You can’t even pray people’s needs without a few pious platitudes.” And so on.
Of course, none of these arrows hits the mark. Except in the eyes of other nominal Christians — who do have a few million Twitter accounts.
But true Christians refuse to stop loving just because nominal Christians mock that we care about eternity. True Christians press on with Jesus in the conviction that we should care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
“True Christians refuse to stop loving just because nominal Christians mock that we care about eternity.”
Christians hold fast to the conviction that 85 years of protection, shelter, food, clothing, health, peace, prosperity, social justice, comfort, and happiness, followed by an eternity of misery, is not a good life. And we know that real love will not settle for such a tragic life. It prays for more.
So, I am pleading for all Christians to pray like real Christians. I am pleading that you never give into the criticism that it is more loving to ask God to give people his gifts but not himself. I am pleading that all prayer be Christ-exalting, God-centered, sin-confessing, Spirit-dependent, promise-trusting, holiness-pursuing prayer. In other words, I am pleading that we really love people when we pray for them.