When we learn about prayer, we often cover the basics of “what to do when praying” but we don’t always cover the “what to avoid when praying” section. I think this is an important element of learning about prayer, because it’s so easy to make assumptions about prayer, or to fall into bad habits.
This is not at all an exhaustive list, so do share your own thoughts in the comments too for everyone to see, but for now here are 6 things to avoid when praying.
Only praying when we need something
You may well have heard the phrase that we shouldn’t “treat God like a vending machine”, but I think this does need expanding on. I know I’ve been guilty of suddenly wanting to pray about a specific situation, but knowing that I shouldn’t treat God like a vending machine so adding in a whole long prayer of thank yous, and sorrys before I actually get to the thing I wanted to pray about. This kind of defeats the point too. Prayer is about developing a relationship with God, and as with any relationship this comes from sharing big things, little things, good things and bad things.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 says:
If we are praying continually, we are able to develop our relationship with God so that we take everything to him, every part of our day and every thought of our day can be part of a continual conversation with God. It takes time to get used to this, and to develop it as a habit, but it’s so worth it. If we only turn to God when we need something, it’s like asking a giant favour from a stranger, why would you have faith in him to listen if you don’t know who he is?
Drawing attention to ourselves
“And 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. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”Matthew 6:5-8
Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, talked about prayer to the people that had gathered. The key points he pulled out here were to not pray for the attention of others, and not to use our prayers to show off to others or to achieve a certain standard of prayer. A lady at my church put it quite well recently as she said that if we focus so much on the other people listening to our prayers, we end up praying to them rather than to God. Prayer doesn’t need to be dramatic, it’s a personal relationship.
We know that with God, all things are possible. However, this does not mean that all of our prayers will be answered in the way that we expect, or in the way that we want. We need to know and trust that God knows far better than we ever could.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”Isaiah 55:8-9
Whilst we can bring any situation before God in prayer, we need to approach God from a position of humility and trust that God’s will is best and that we will be obedient to him no matter how he answers our prayers.
Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, showed us how this is done:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”Luke 22:42
Believing that God cannot answer our prayers
Following on nicely from my previous point, we need to be careful that whilst we understand that God knows best, we don’t stop believing in his ability to actually answer our prayers. We are called to pray in faith, and God has shown us so many examples of his power within the Bible: power to heal, power to provide, power to comfort, power to raise people from the dead. Surely this is enough to demonstrate just why we can have faith in his power.
“Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Matthew 19:26
Comparing our prayers to others
Something that I hear a lot, is that people feel unable to pray out loud because they are intimidated by the way in which other people are praying. They are so articulate, so reflective, so whatever, that people don’t feel that they could do anything that “good”. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that this is the fault of those who are more confident in praying out loud.
Each person should feel able to pray out in the way that allows them to express their prayers best to God. As we said before, we should be praying to God, not to other people. It is God that we are talking to, and him we should be focused upon. Praying out loud does take some time to get used to (I have a whole blog about it here), but when you have the opportunity to do it, keep your mind focused upon what you are saying to God, not how others may perceive your prayers.
Also, the more I have experienced prayer within a community, the more I have seen that different people do just pray in different ways. These shouldn’t be intimidating to us, they should act as guidance as to how we can pray, different people expressing themselves to God in different ways, saying the things that we may not be able to put into words.
Praying to anyone other than God
As Christians, we believe in one true God: The God of the Bible. He is the only one that we should be calling upon to answer our prayers, because he is the one that is working for our good, he is the one through whom all things are possible, he is the one is which we should place our hope.
Often, we hear people calling upon ‘the universe’, or ‘nature’, or more sinister talk of how they communicate with dead people in order to ask for guidance or knowledge of the future. In subtle ways, this can look a lot like prayer. But when we look closer, this is calling upon the power of something that is not God. This is not what we have been called to, and will not bring us the peace and joy of the God of the Bible.
What other things do we need to avoid when praying?
Dear God, thank you that we have the opportunity to pray to you and to hear your voice. Help us to ensure that we are praying to you alone and to focus on you alone. Give us confidence in the power of praying to you, knowing that with you all things are possible. Amen.