You’re sitting in church, working hard to worship. You’ve had a hectic week and this Sunday morning has had its share of stresses. But finally, you’re here, in place, in the Lord’s house, sitting in your favorite pew. You’ve joined the congregation in singing the first hymn of the day. The minister has started the service right with a wonderful call to worship. And then it happens.
The person leading the opening prayer strays across an invisible border and says something that offends you or frightens you or angers you or troubles you or at the very least disturbs you.
That’s what this is about.
Just so you will know, I’m a pastor. We pastors have the same reaction you do when the person praying–whether a layman or a trained minister who should know better–says something very wrong or quite stupid or somewhat offensive. We wonder what that was all about, where he learned that doctrine, or where he picked that weird phrase up and decided to incorporate it into his public prayers.
Everyone has his/her list of prayers that cross that deadline. Here is my list of the Top ten prayers I hope never to hear again.
10. “And Lord, we want to tell you…and Lord, this, and Lord that.”
My neighbor Kay Swanson hears people pray, “Father God, Lord, I pray….and Father God, that you would…Lord God, Father God, be merciful to us….” Kay says, “Please! When you’re speaking to me, you don’t invoke my name between every couple of words. Why do you do this to God?”
Using the Lord’s name as punctuation is a no-no.
9. Silliness in prayer.
John Favara has a friend whose pastor once prayed, “And Lord, one day when we are in Heaven, laying around, sipping on a pina colada….”
Another friend heard a minister offering an invocation before a NASCAR event in which he thanked God for the “smoking hot wife” the Lord had given him. He ended his prayer with something like “In Jesus’ name, boogity, boogity, boogity.” Methinks that preacher has already been into the pina coladas.
I’m not saying because I’m offended–and I am, seriously, at such foolishness in public prayers–that God in Heaven is also. But I see nothing in Scriptures to encourage us to believe God welcomes this kind of silliness.
8. Praying to manipulate people.
I used to have a friend who led an organization that was stressing her out. Every day she would deal with work problems involving her team. Then, in the daily devotional and prayer time which they all attended, she would tell the Lord to please help this person do better at whatever and this department to get their act together.
You will not be surprised to learn that every single person she prayed for resented this. It was a not-so-subtle attempt at manipulation. She was equating her will with God’s. And that’s always a dangerous assumption.
7. “Lord, help us to get something out of this today.”
I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this one prayed at the beginning of a worship service. The troublesome part of that is that the pray-er sincerely believes this is why everyone has come together: to get something out of this service. That we would assemble in order to “give to the Lord the glory due His name” (Psalm 29:2) is a foreign idea to him.
It is a truth worth remembering–and setting in stone–that when we humble ourselves before God and worship Him “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4), we walk away having “gotten something out of it.” However, the person who comes before the Lord only to “get something” will almost always walk away empty handed and frustrated.
The saddest aspect of this is that most of the people occupying pews in our churches do not have a clue about this.
6. Mindless and shallow theology.
Tommy Mitchell used to have a lady in his congregation who regularly prayed, “Lord, some way, some how, save the lost!” Tommy comments, “I always thought that the Lord had pretty much cleared all that up about the way and the how.”
Angie Shockley says she tires of hearing people pray, “Lord, be with this person” and “be with that one.” As though God checks in and out of places.
Lynn Jones used to have a fellow in his church who prayed, “Lord, bless all whom it’s our duty to pray for.” (That man must have really gotten around because I’ve heard that prayer in churches all across the Southern Baptist Convention.)
5. “Lord, we are all worthless sinners who are deserving of hell.”
Annie Briley groans when she hears people pray this way. She says, “A holy and almighty God doesn’t like it either. He saw us as of sufficient value to send His only Son to die in our place. He also made a wonderful place called Heaven, where He invites us to come and live with Him someday.”
This is not to say we are all we should be. Nor do we imply we should check our humility at the door to the Throne Room. But we are now in Christ, and that makes us children of God and heirs to Heaven, as well as joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
4. “Lord, we know that all our righteousness is as filthy rags in thy sight.”
The well-intentioned pray-er got that from Isaiah 64:6, “We are all like an unclean thing; and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” Isaiah was not talking about the holy deeds of God’s redeemed; he referred to the feeble attempts of rebellious sinners to do good acts to impress God.
A couple of insights from Revelation should settle this. In Heaven, the “golden bowl full of incense” represent “the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). Clearly, these prayers were precious to the Father.
To the bride of Christ, the Church, “it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:8).
After the Apostle Paul establishes that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, he adds, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
3. “Lord, we just pray for this and we just pray for that.”
Not a biggie, but still a useless appendage in our attempts to address the Heavenly Father.
I put this “just” in the same category as “you know” (count the number of these the next time you hear a sports figure being interviewed) or “like” (“Well, I’m like okay on that.”). Again, it’s not major, but just an irritant.
2. “Lord, I pray…and Lord, I make my prayer in Jesus’ name.”
If this prayer were offered in his closet or bedroom, no problem. But if the pray-er is interceding on behalf of the congregation, take out the first person pronoun and use “we” and “our.”
Joe Young comments on this practice, “There is little reason to pray with a lot of ‘I’ and ‘me’ outside of our private place.”
I imagine I know where this originated. Some well-meaning but misguided teacher convinced an entire generation of believers that “when we stand in front of a group, we are not praying as a group. No one can voice the prayers of others. I’m an individual, praying my own prayers. Therefore, we should take out this ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us.”
The odd thing about that is that whoever-that-teacher-was convinced a host of people. I hear it wherever I go. But it’s completely backwards.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father…. Give us…. Forgive us….We forgive those…. Lead us not…. Deliver us….”
That should settle it.
1. “Lord, forgive me IF I have sinned.”
Pastor Jeffery Friend finds this one offensive. “It should be ‘when’ I sin,” he comments.
We all know people who frame their apologies like this: “If I did anything to offend you, I’m sorry.” Or, even worse, “If you were offended by what I did, I’m sorry.”
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). It’s worth remembering that the word “confess” there means “to say the same thing.” That is, we agree with God that what we did, what we are confessing, is sinful behavior.
At Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, I was trying to do group counseling with a half dozen inmates who had responded to our evangelistic invitation. Normally, I’d have been accompanied by several men from my church who would have assisted in this. But that evening, I made the trip alone.
Rather than dealing with each one individually, I addressed them together. “Fellows,” I said, “the Bible says we are all sinners.” I looked at the first one and said, “Are you a sinner?” He said, “I am.” To the second, “Are you a sinner?” “Yes sir.” The third one said, “I used to be.” I said, “Stand over here and I’ll deal with you in a minute.”
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8).
Now, having said all this, let me undermine it all with one statement: In the long run, what I feel about your prayer (and what you think of mine) means absolutely nothing.
The Lord knows the heart. He sees what is going on inside, something not apparent to the rest of us.
There are prayers filled with cliches and repetitions which the Father in Heaven loves because He knows the heart of the one offering them up.
And so we offer this little list with the humble admission that it might be of help to someone. But maybe not.
A servant stands or falls to his own master. (Romans 14:4)
The last thing we would want is to make a brother or sister so self-conscious about the form or wording of their prayer that they fail to pray.
I think of our little family–my wife, our two sons and a daughter–gathered around the table several decades ago. Sometimes after a child would say grace, one of the siblings would criticize the prayer. Since their dad was also their pastor, I was quick to intervene and let them know we do not criticize prayers in this house.
Probably a good reminder here. Especially since I just got through doing it!