Is There No Such Thing as a Bad Prayer?
Years ago, when I was teaching at a Christian school, I saw a cartoon posted in the teacher’s lounge. There were several little “piggies” in a circle around their teacher. One of the piggies had just answered a question and the teacher responded, “Now Eloise, we know that there is no such thing as a wrong answer; but if there were, that would be it.” We chuckle because we see through the pervasive but false idea that there is no such thing as a wrong answer. The obvious problem is that in trying to protect self-esteem, we keep students from learning the truth.
What about prayer? Is there such a thing as a bad prayer? Again, we instinctively might want to say no, and there would be some truth in saying that. We might give biblical reasons like:
- Prayer doesn’t need to be long or complicated (Matt. 6:9–13)
- God cares about whatever concerns us (Matt. 7:11)
- Jesus deals gently with the ignorant and wayward (Heb. 5:2)
But these truths would not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Consider this:
- Jesus warns that prayer can be hypocritical or manipulative (Matt. 6:5–8)
- James explains that one reason we don’t receive answers to prayer is that our prayers are selfish (James 4:3)
- Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 warns against rash, presumptuous prayer
So, sadly, there can be bad or wrong prayer. The point is that knowing who God is and what he’s like as revealed in Scripture is very important as we approach God in prayer. In other words, good theology matters in prayer. This is especially important as we lead others in prayer, because in addition to representing others in prayer to the living God, we are actually teaching them to pray by our example.
Jesus on the Importance of Good Theology
Theology is not esteemed by all Christians. Some consider it dry, barren, and divisive (“Jesus saves; doctrine divides!”), so they strive to keep spiritual things as simple as possible—simple songs, simple sermons, simple prayers. While the desire to keep things understandable is good, the problem is that simple easily morphs into simplistic and biblical richness and accuracy are sacrificed. This dishonors God and hurts the church. The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–26) shows how Jesus valued good theology in evangelism, discipleship, and, by implication, prayer.
As Jesus seeks to entice the woman with the promise of living water, he astounds her with his detailed knowledge of her previous relationships with men. She rightly perceives he is a prophet but then heads off on a detour conversation about where the right place of worship is. As Jesus informs her that the mode of worship—not the place of worship—is the issue, he says, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” What is Jesus implying about the importance of good theology in relationship to God?
First, he implies that it is not good that she worships (prays to) someone she doesn’t really know. Second, he informs her that the long awaited time of salvation has arrived. Third, he briefly instructs her in a basic theology of God: because he is spirit, those who worship him must worship him in spirit (from the heart) and truth (as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures). Finally, he reveals himself as the Messiah and only way to know God. The sublime brevity, simplicity, and richness of Jesus’s revelation to the woman is breathtaking.
Note the following implications of this story for the necessity of good theology in approaching God in prayer:
- We cannot approach God or lead others in prayer if we don’t have accurate knowledge of him. We will never have exhaustive knowledge of him, but since he has revealed himself in creation and Scripture, we can have true knowledge of him. Our prayers, especially when leading others in prayer, must have the savor of Paul in Athens, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b).
- Genuine prayer is Spirit-empowered, heart-centered, and informed by the truths of Scripture. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, has scathing words about any other kind of prayer, “And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6). Without the truth of the Word and the power of Spirit, prayer will misfire and mislead.
- Jesus is the Messiah, the only Savior of the world, the Lord of every man. God can only be approached through “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Only personal and corporate prayer in the name of and through the person of Christ honors God and can legitimately expect a favorable answer.
How to Pray Theologically
The rest of this article will discuss three ways we can make our personal and public prayer more theological and, therefore, more God-honoring, edifying, and effectual. I will use a keyword for each principle.
This is obvious in light of our discussion of knowing the God we address in prayer. The more we saturate our prayers in Scripture the more our prayers will align with the character and will of God, the more God will be honored, the more the church will be edified, and the more answers to prayer we will see (1 John 5:14–15). Praying Scripture will also keep our prayers balanced (adoration, confession, supplication), weighty, and pleasing. Notice how David prays biblically by incorporating Exodus 34:6 into Psalm 145:8–9:
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
And his mercy is over all that he has made.
To pray biblically is the first step in praying theologically.
The heart of Christian theology is that God is one God revealed in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a deep mystery but also very practical. Our theology always profoundly informs and impacts our practice, including our practice of prayer. The reason our prayer should be Trinitarian is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each intimately involved in both creation (see Gen. 1:1–2 and John 1:1–3) and redemption (see 2 Thess. 2:13–14). And so it makes perfect biblical, theological, and practical sense to address them each in prayer. Notice how Paul does this in Ephesians 3:14–17:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
Scripture-saturated, Trinitarian, gospel-centered prayer glorifies God and brings the greatest of all blessings.
Paul prays to the Father that the Ephesians would be strengthened by the Spirit so that the Son would dwell in their hearts by faith. This prayer is theological in the best sense: biblically informed, weighty, relevant, practical, and life-transforming. Our prayers don’t need to mention each person in the Trinity every time but, especially in public prayer, there should be a consistent witness to the three-in-one. Trinitarian prayer is clearly biblical, relevantly theological, and comprehensively rich.
3. Pray Gospel-Centered
So far we have said that in order to pray theologically—with a good understanding of God’s character, purposes, and promises—we should pray biblically and pray Trinitarian. One more aspect of praying theologically is essential for Christians to consider. We need to pray gospel-centered prayers. If the heart of theology proper is the Trinity, the heart of redemptive theology (soteriology) is the gospel. The whole Bible ultimately points to Jesus’s redemptive work on the cross, thus securing our forgiveness and reconciliation, our renewal and transformation (see Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; Titus 2:11–14, 3:4–7). As our lives are meant to be increasingly gospel-centered (1 Cor. 1:20–2:5), it would follow that our prayers should become increasingly so as well. What more God-honoring, Christ-exalting, and heart-encouraging prayers could we pray than those that center on the glory of God’s grace toward us in Christ? The gospel is both the gateway to all blessings we receive through prayer (Rom. 5:1–2) and the storehouse of those same blessings, especially the blessing of knowing God himself through Christ (Phil. 3:8–11).
Again, one of Paul’s prayers is a wonderful example of a theologically rich gospel-centered prayer:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Consider the theological riches and practical mercies Paul prays for: knowledge of God’s will, being enabled to walk in a way that pleases the Lord and bears fruit, increasing intimacy with the Lord, power to endure hard things with joy, and a final glorious inheritance with the saints in light. What riches! But notice how he ends the prayer with the source and sum of all gospel blessings: deliverance from Satan and transfer to the kingdom of Jesus with full forgiveness, all through the redeeming blood of Christ. Gospel-centered prayer strikes like lightning to the soul, liberating and transforming and motivating for worship and service.
Does good theology matter in prayer? Scripture, the history of the church, and personal experience say, “Yes and Amen!” Scripture-saturated, Trinitarian, gospel-centered prayer glorifies God and brings the greatest of all blessings: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
This article is by Pat Quinn, author of Praying in Public: A Guidebook for Prayer in Corporate Worship.
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