Today is the National Day of Prayer, a beautiful and sacred time-honored American tradition. Ironically, a lawsuit threatening its legality and waged by atheists is now making its way to the Supreme Court and bringing more attention to the subject of public prayer than ever before.
But for now, over the course of the next twenty-four hours, there will be thousands of prayer events hosted and conducted throughout our nation. Some will be attended by scores of people and framed by pomp and pageantry; others might consist of two or three co-workers who give up their lunch and gather in a quiet office break room for the simple but profound purpose of praying for this great country.
I’ll be joining the staff here at Focus on the Family for own private service on campus. I applaud our dear friend and colleague, Mrs. Shirley Dobson, for her continued great work leading this much needed movement.
Prayer is a critical practice for any Christian, but it’s also something that since we do so often, we run the risk of taking too lightly. How often have we ended a conversation with a friend or loved one by assuring them, “I’ll pray for you.” Or how frequently have we been the one asking for prayer ourselves, but not thinking too deeply about the significance of the request?
Habits and routines can be good—but they can also cause us to get into an easy rut and maybe forget just how awesome a privilege it is to be in communion and conversation with the Creator of the universe.
Dr. Tim Keller, a pastor and favorite writer of mine based out of New York City, has an excellent “take” on human nature. When it comes to personally communicating with the Lord, Pastor Keller suggests the average believer can easily distort the practice of prayer by doing two common things:
1. Praying prayers that have “light without heat” Pastor Keller says, “If we lose focus on the glory of God in the gospel as the solution to all our problems, then we devolve into a set of ‘grocery list’ prayers, made rather desperately. When we are done, we only feel more anxious than before. The presence of God is not sensed because God is really just being used—he is not being worshipped.”
Here, Pastor Keller is advocating for “gospel-centered prayer” as opposed to “anxious petitioning.”
In other words, when we pray for a need, we should be asking that our petition be met only if we believe that its result will bring glory to God—not necessarily riches or acclaim to us.
2. Praying prayers that have “heat without light” According to Pastor Keller, “Many people who pray like [this] are actually reacting against the very limp kind of prayer meetings that result from anxious personal petition. But they respond by simply trying to directly inject emotion and drama into prayer.”
What’s so interesting about this analysis is that both distortions of these two types of prayer are actually rooted in the same common mistake—thinking that we could possibly earn God’s favor by simply being good enough to deserve it. The Scriptures, of course, are clear that God’s blessings are grace-based, not works-based. We surely don’t deserve our salvation, nor could we ever earn it regardless of how righteous our living.
So what can we do to avoid approaching prayer as a self-centered act instead of a God-centered practice?
Franklin Graham, the honorary Chairman of this year’s national observance and son of the legendary evangelist Dr. Billy Graham, recently summed up a four-point approach:
1. Praise His Promises
2. Repent by His Power
3. Abide in His Presence
4. Yield to Christ’s Plan
As we pause to remember and recognize this year’s National Day of Prayer, I’m reminded of the words of the great hymn To God Be the Glory, penned by the legendary Fanny Crosby:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
To God be the glory, great things He has done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son.
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.