Prayer is really a simple concept: talk to God. But humans are capable of messing up anything. I, also human, have recently been realizing how much I have messed up prayer, for basically my entire life.
This is because I pray to my idols. And that’s pretty messed up.
OK, “pray to,” isn’t really the right way to say it; when I pray, it is very clear I’m praying to God. A better way to say it is, “I pray in a way that reinforces my idols.”
This really hit me while listening to this sermon by Timothy Keller, which is part of his series about the Lord’s Prayer. In it, he argues that the Lord’s Prayer intentionally starts with adoration (“Hallowed be thy name,”) and only then is followed by petitions (“Give us this day our daily bread”) and confession (“Forgive us our tresspasses”). This, he says, is the way we should also pray: adoration first, our wishes and sins second. He calls this “the primacy of praise,” which has a pretty nice ring to it.
This may seem pretty arbitrary, and not a very big deal. What does it matter what order you say these things in, as long as you say them?
Praise needs to frame, dominate, and saturate the other parts of prayer, Keller says. Praise, or hallowing, shows you what your god is. According to Keller, to “hallow” something is to make it your most ultimate, sacred and crucial concern. Everyone hallows something, so if you’re not hallowing God, you’re hallowing something else, and that affects how you see your needs and your problems.
Let me show you what I mean. Because I don’t spend time praising God at the beginning of my prayers, I automatically start praising what I always praise--my idols. I confess sins not because I believe I have sinned against God, but because I have sinned against one of my idols. For example, I may have had an interaction with someone and I didn’t listen, or I was impatient, or I snapped. I pray they would forgive me. When I actually think “Why am I praying this?” The answer is, “I want them to like me.” I have failed my idol of people pleasing, and I go to God to “fix it.”
Or I sin against God, not a person. I didn’t do something I felt I should do. Why do I ask for forgiveness? Not in recognition of his love and free forgiveness, not to restore relationship. I pray so I can “be back on a level playing field” with God. The concept is so ridiculous I had to use quotes.
Same goes with petition, asking for “your daily bread.” Keller points out bread is what is essential for life. So, what’s your bread? We ask for things we think are absolutely necessary, and often the things we think are necessary are our idols.
For example, I pray that my discussion section would go well. That’s not a bad thing to pray. But why am I praying it? Because I think, if it doesn’t go well, I will be a failure, and my life will fall to pieces.
Praise put things in perspective. You remember what’s important, and what you don’t need to fret about (“I would like discussion to go well, but help me to remember my performance is not where my value lies”) and the true reasons you need to repent (“Help me at some point in my long life to care more about what you think of me than what other people do.”)
I don’t think God has been turning a deaf ear to my prayers for the last 24 years. But I think he’s been sadly witnessing a tragedy, because in all this time I’ve spent with him, the point was supposed to be that I was falling more in love with him, and instead I’ve been falling more in love with accomplishments, people’s opinions of me, material crap, etc., etc.
So I’m praying more carefully now--praise has to come first. Praise, to be honest, does not come as naturally to me, because I am a Pharisee who likes to pray on a “what I am owed” basis. But I want to spend my quality time with God actually with God and not my slew of idols.