So we’ve looked at praise and thanksgiving. I highly recommend that you start your prayers out this way before you get to any requests or complaints. It helps keep things in perspective, no?
But before we get to talking about asking him for things, there’s one more aspect of prayer which we really need to address, as you can guess from the title.
The first passage in Psalm 66 is pretty sobering. The Psalmist was calling on his fellow believers to praise the Lord, but starting in verse 16 he gives a personal testimony about how God has treated him. He had apparently hit some trouble in his life, and had called upon his Lord to intervene and save him. The Psalmist tells us very directly that if he had “cherished sin in [his] heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
What's this talking about? Let’s say, for example, I’m driving along and see a pretty girl who’s scantily dressed. Noticing a beautiful girl is not a problem, but I linger. I specifically focus on certain parts of her body. I think about what I’d like to do to her if I ever got the chance. A clear violation of Matt. 5:27-28. And I might even forget about my transgression. I don’t even think about it as I go forward into my day.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that even though I’ve forgotten it, my Lord hasn’t. He takes thoughts seriously, as the above passage from Matthew shows. And if I start praying to him, either alone or with others, my prayer won’t be effective. If we have unconfessed sin, if we “cherish” or “harbor” (in other translations) sin in our hearts, the Lord won’t listen to anything else we have to say. Once I sin, the very next prayer that the Lord is going to respond to will be a prayer of confession and repentance.
That’s why the Psalm 139 passage is so very important. It’s a great prayer. Now, I don’t believe in “formula” prayers. We’re dealing with a Person in our prayers, not a force like electricity. It’s not an issue of saying the “right” prayer with the “right” words. That’s magic. But it’s a great pattern. I try to remember to pray something like it every time I pray. Again, if I have unconfessed sin, then my relationship with the Lord is severely hindered.
I’ve used this illustration before (I think), so please forgive me, but it’s the best one I have. Let’s say that I’m the son of Bill Gates. He and I have a screaming match argument, and I end up saying “Forget you, dad! I’m outta here!” and storm out of the mansion. Not having any immediately marketable skills, I take a job waiting tables in a greasy spoon diner and living in a firetrap apartment where I have to fight off the rats and roaches. Am I still Bill Gates’s son? If you took blood out of me and blood out of him and sent the samples to a lab, the obvious answer is would be “Yes.” But I’m not living like a son of Bill Gates should live. I should be dining on steak and lobster every night if I want. I should be working in an air-conditioned office. But because of our stupid argument, I’m not living like a son of Bill Gates should be living.
Have you prayed to your Father and feel like your prayers are hitting the ceiling? If so, praying something like the 139th Psalm passage should be the very next thing you say. Ask him something like “Father, is there some unconfessed sin in my heart, some way in which I’ve disappointed or disobeyed you?” If he points out something specific (the Holy Spirit convicts of specific sin, while the Enemy accuses you in order to condemn), then confess it (agree with God that it’s wrong) and ask for his help in stopping it and not doing it again. Make a commitment that—by his grace—you’re going to stop doing it. I pray something like “Father, I’m so sorry I did X. I know it was wrong. There’s no excuse for what I did. Please forgive me, and please help me not to do that again.” For more on this, see the postings here.
And here’s the good news after the bad news from the passage in 1 John. If we confess, he promises to A) Forgive us for whatever we’ve done or not done, and B) Cleanse us from all wickedness. He not only forgives but also removes the stain. Permanently. Never to be brought up again.
Once we’ve dealt with any unconfessed sin, then we can move on to other things.
Father, it’s obvious what I need to do here. I desperately need you to please examine me from top to bottom, inside-out. Whatever you find there that’s not pleasing, please point it out, and give me the resolve and strength and whatever else I need to deal with it decisively.