Kick the Habit of Pointless Prayer

What if you woke every morning and said something like this to your wife:
“Good morning dear.  I trust that you slept well.  I hope that you have a wonderful day full of happiness.  Be safe and apply yourself well.  Manage the house with diligence.  I love you.”

I mean you said that same thing – exactly – every morning.  Same words, same meter, same inflection.  I’ll bet her heart would be overflowing, wouldn’t it?  Wouldn’t that sound sincere?

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  And cold and impersonal and meaningless.  Yet we do this every day in our homes and every Sunday at church.  We say the same thing, the same way.  Could your kids chant along with your prayers at dinner, or the ones given from the stage at church?  Maybe that’s not such a good thing.

Consider the following examples:

  • “Lord, we just come to you at this time”
  • “Thank you for all the blessings you give us”
  • “Please grant travelling mercies to the Reeds as they drive this weekend”
  • “Be with John today, Lord”
  • “Help me today in my walk with you”

These all sound incredibly mechanical.  And to be honest, I don’t even know what some of them mean.   But this has almost become our liturgy.  Speaking this way, for many people, is what is perceived as spiritual maturity.  But it’s not!  It’s spiritual idiocy.

Jesus told us to come like children.  He said the kingdom of heaven belongs to those such as these.  Does he mean small people?  Uneducated people?  Immature people?  No! He means unindoctrinated people!  People without preconceived ideas.  People without a lingo that does not appear in the bible.  People without expectations.  People without religious pride.  Children don’t have pet phrases.  They just talk!  They say what they mean.  They use the words they know.  We could learn from this.

What if your prayers were more like this:

  • “Lord – thanks for that bonus that enabled us to pay off our credit card!”
  • “Thank you for the blessing of a warm house, health, safety, and a loving family.”
  • “Please protect us today as we run our errands, and help to keep mommy alert when she drives.”
  • “God – give us wisdom in our finances so we can live within our means”
  • “Help me Lord to be like you.  Replace my wicked heart with one like yours.  Help me to see things the way you do.”

I’m not suggesting that you copy these – just that you talk to God!

Just like your wife, God would prefer that you be sincere.  My wife knows when I’m not fully participating in a conversation (and calls me on it!)  Should we think that God is any less aware?

Don’t parrot back churchy phrases you have picked up along the way.  God loves you regardless how you pray, but if your prayers make sense, maybe he’ll feel like you are actually making an effort to have a relationship rather than just checking ‘Pray to God’ off of your list.

What do you think?

  • Cowpunkmom

    Love this post!

    One comment about the very last paragraph. It implies to me that God will be more impressed with me if I pray as you suggest. I believe that God, through the grace of his Spirit, understands ALL our lame attempts at prayer, no matter how right or wrong or mechanical they are. I believe that the one that benefits from coming to God as a child is ME, us. He couldn’t love me one speck less or more, but I will be far more aware of His love if I put away the meaningless repetition in my prayer life.

    It’s a small point, but I think an important one.

  • Hi Paula!

    Hmmm – I’ve read it a few times to try and see it the way you describe. I kind of do, but I did say “God loves you regardless how you pray”. I will certainly concede that I do not intend anyone do anything “my way”! I’ll also grant you that God can understand our heart. My concern is not as much with people who use the wrong words as it is with people who don’t even engage. What I mean is, when God looks into our heart is there anything even there?

    A sincere person, even a child, can pray and get the words and format all wrong and I am confident the prayer reaches God’s ears! But what if someone says “Dear Lord, bless Billy today.” What does that even mean? I’m concerned that much of what we pray is rote phrases, and we simply are not expressing ourselves to God at all! Rather, we are saying empty words we think we need to say to feel like we have done what we’re supposed to do.

    Does that make any sense? I’m wide open to critique and suggestions for clarification or rewording!

    Thanks!

  • Roxy

    Ok, trying not to sound mechanical here but I have one thing I want to say,again! God inspired you one more time to say something really good and deep! You are right on! I love it when my kids talk to me sincerely, when the expose their heart and seek my counsel, I love it when they laugh with me and when they cry in my presence and let me comfort them. Is such a joy to see their excitement and even when they hurt I understand their language. I want to embrace them with my unconditional love… Matt 7: 11 SO TRUE! Thanks Scott 🙂

  • Cowpunkmom

    I totally agree with you! I agree with your points all the way through!

    Maybe I’m super-sensitive about the whole “impressing God” thing. I have taken years to shed the misguided belief that I need to impress God with my actions. Pray better, read the Bible every day, look like this, don’t smoke that… Will God “feel” (your word from the last sentence) better about me if I engage with him more? No. I will feel better about God.

    So I totally agree with you! We need to engage! We need to open up our hearts and actually talk to God! But not for His benefit. For ours. Maybe you didn’t say that. Maybe it only looked like that to me because of my baggage. Keep up the good work!

  • Thanks Roxy! We sure notice it when other people engage with us sincerely, don’t we?
    Thanks for commenting – you’re becoming a regular. 🙂

  • Thanks for the followup Paula. I see where you’re coming from now, and it is a valid point. Probably more noticeable to people with the background you have expressed, but valid nonetheless! You are right – we all have baggage, and it influences our worldview as well as our view of God.

    How about this rewording…

    “Don’t parrot back churchy phrases you have picked up along the way. This is mindless and insincere. God loves you and listens to you regardless how you pray – as long as your prayers come from a heart that is engaged. The issue is whether we are truly connecting with the God of the universe on a relational level, and not just checking ‘Pray to God’ off of our list.”

    Does that work? Got any tweaks to improve it?

    (Thanks again for pushing me)

  • Cowpunkmom

    Here’s how I’d write that sencond-last sentence. (Which you can take or leave! LOL!!)

    “God loves you and listens to you regardless of how you pray — but you will be more aware of His love when your prayers come from a heart that is engaged.”

    Otherwise, listen to the sentence you wrote expressed through the negative: “God won’t love you and listen to you if your prayers AREN’T coming from a heart that is fully engaged.”

    His love is not conditional, and I KNOW you know that! =) But God only listens as long as I’m fully engaged? You don’t mean that. But that is what the sentence kind of says. Speaking merely from an editing point of view now.

    Good heavens, I don’t want my nit-picking to distract from the meat of your post, which is good, good, good! I don’t mean to discourage you at all.

  • Oh, man. Another nail-hitter, bro’! What is it about us that wants to fall into “incantations?”

    I was just thinking along these lines last night. (Great minds think alike, and I guess ours do, too. 😀 ) There’s the ever-popular “in the name of Jesus” that’s supposed to make God wake up & pay attention. And, Scott, let’s not forget, Scott, about all those, Scott, who, Scott, like, Scott, to throw, Scott, a reference, Scott, to “Lord,” Scott, just about, Scott, every other word, Scott.

    Sure, God is holy and all that. But He doesn’t want incantations. He doesn’t want us to “say a prayer” like we’re reading some heavy-duty writing from somebody. He takes “howdy” just as well.

  • Good points Joe. Thanks!

  • I hear this in my kids now. Which means they hear it from me. Ouch.

  • While we have always strived to teach our children to “talk” to God, I admit, it’s easy to slip into a routine. Thanks for the reminder.

  • I know what you mean. Kids show us more about ourselves than we often care to see!

  • Too true. Some of the examples I listed came way too easy!

  • Beautifully said… Jesus said that eternal life is to KNOW him. The word know used has the same meaning as Abraham knew Sarah or I know my wife. It implied a level of intimacy and a oneness that has gotten far too rare.

  • So, you’re saying “Now I lay me down to sleep…” isn’t building intimacy?? 😉

    Thanks David!

  • This video just sent to me by a Twitter friend (@mrsalbrecht)
    Truly awesome example of prayer gone horribly wrong (ie – the way we usually do it!)

  • Dslater30

    Interesting thoughts. I definitely agree that our prayers to God should be honest and from the heart, not just copied and pasted every time we come before God. One thing I picked thought of when I read this is when you mentioned conversation with God. God knows when we aren’t fully participating in conversation with Him. Some prayers are requests. Even a heartfelt prayer of “help” is heard and received by God. But lots of prayer can be conversation. Conversation implying that not only do we speak to God and He hears us, but He speaks to us and we hear Him. I think that could be the more difficult part of prayer, the fact that God wants to dialogue with a person and we have to have sharp discernment to hear it and willingness to obey, when challenged by His answer to our prayers.

  • Good points. That whole conversational aspect is definitely necessary for any real relationship. Thanks!

  • A friend of mine on Facebook brought up a couple of good points, though.

    First, new Christians or those ready to give their lives over to Christ might be afraid to just “chat with God.” A ready-made “repeat after me” kind of prayer can help in some cases with keeping a focus on the important bits.

    Second, a prayer/poem repeated for someone else’s ears can be very touching.

  • Don

    Thanks for this post. I’ve spent the entire 68 years of my life in church. Sadly, your first example is the norm in most churches. It so refreshing when you hear someone pray with words that express a genuine heart and a humble attitude – specific prayers devoid of clichés. I’m always so moved when I hear the prayers of godly men like Paul Washer and David Platt.

  • It is refreshing, isn’t it? I know it always makes me listen, because I’m hearing something I haven’t heard before. Thanks Don!

  • I have to make a specific effort when I pray in a group setting, to truly pray my heart as truthfully and simply as possible because I was raised in church, and there are all these churchy phrases that make you sound and feel holier or more reverent or more spiritual or more anointed or more powerful in your prayer or whatever, and sometimes they’re more for the benefit of others. (how the phrases react on you depends on your flavor of traditional denominational upbringing.)

    I know it throws people off when I say stuff like, “Thank you, Lord for this day. Wait, that was just cheesy, God, I’m sorry. I was just saying crap. I’m tired, but you’re truly awesome, and please help me be less trite and more real.” Which was almost word-for-word from a couple sundays ago, during our worship team pre-service jamboree prayer session, in which I was leading that day. This prompted a leader in the church to take me aside and give me a “word from God” about being trite. Things did not go well from there, but fortunately our church is very non-denominational, and doesn’t put much stock in formality, so it ended up okay.

    I’m just saying, kudos for the post, and yes, it can be an actual effort for those raised in a church setting to not just spit out familiar phrases, but to speak what is actually on your heart. It requires a bit of honesty and self-examination to get past the familiar words that come easily, and to express what is actually in your heart, either good or bad or indifferent.

    When I was a new believer, the Lord actually “grounded” me from praying out loud in group prayers for a period of time. True story. 🙂

  • Thanks for the reply Barbara! (And you know what – I really like that prayer you made!)