Prayer Part 2: How-to Manuals and Fingerprints

When I was in high school, I picked up a couple of those how-to manuals on writing HTML code. I even borrowed the copy of “HTML for Dummies” from our local library. In the next month, I spent hours on my laptop slaving over a webpage, designing my own website. Finally, it was done. Once I had finished it, though, I completely lost interest in coding, put the manuals on the shelf, and returned the dummy guide to the library. A couple months later I went back and realized how awful my page looked. I wondered, “how could this happen? I spent hours designing it, copied and modeled it straight off of the text!” I never imagined that discovering the reason for the outcome would be as easy as looking at the very fingers which I had used to write the page.

When you ask a Christian for a model of prayer, one of the first places he will point you is Matthew 6:9-13, or The Lord’s Prayer. This is a good response, because generally, when you can learn a lesson directly from the Word of God, you should. However, instinctively, we all recognize that the Lord’s Prayer isn’t a blueprint, rather it’s an instruction. If I hand you a piece of paper and ask you to draw a flower, it will be unique and personal, and no two persons’ will look the same. That said, there will be common elements: petals, stems, styles, sepals, etc. On the other hand, if I give all of you a connect-the-dots for a flower, then they will all look almost the same, except for Kelby’s, because Kelby is special.

In this fashion, a direct recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is almost exactly the same every time, with some minor variations depending on the version. This can bring some comfort, like a well-worn pair of shoes, but can also lead to stagnation of prayer life.

However, if we look at Matthew 6 as the direction of a prayer rather than a design, we can find the elements of it. I find three: praise and subordination, request for sustenance, and request for relief.

In verses 9-10, Jesus tells His disciples to pray that God’s name be “hallowed.” If we look to the Psalms, many are dedicated to the praise of God, and others still indirectly glorify Him. It’s not a coincidence that the very first part of Jesus’s model is devoted to praise – by looking to God first we take ourselves out of the spotlight.

Next, in verses 11-12 He commands them to pray for “[their] daily bread.” Not their weekly bread or monthly bread, but a continuous reliance on God. We are to pray every day for the strength and provision to make it through. Jesus also says we should pray for forgiveness, “as we forgive our debtors.” He goes on to reemphasize this in vv.  14-15, explaining that those who forgive will be forgiven and those who do not will not be forgiven. By revisiting this point, it’s almost as if Jesus was underlining the “as we forgive” part. We cannot ask for forgiveness without first giving it.

Finally, verse 13 asks for relief from trials, and in some versions includes a second affirmation of God’s superiority. Whether or not there is a direct affirmation, the verse implies it in the supplication for “deliverance from evil.” You don’t ask for aid with something you can do yourself, and you don’t ask for relief from one who has no power over what troubles you, therefore by praying for deliverance, we humble ourselves before God and acknowledge His sovereignty over the world.

The order of these elements is also important. Note that the prayer begins by focusing on God, honoring His name and praying that His rule comes more fully upon the earth. This helps to take our eyes off ourselves and reorients us to His Word and Will. If, as C.S. Lewis proposed, the center of Christianity resides in eliminating pride, it makes sense for the model prayer to begin by subsuming our desires to God’s. This is not the kind of humility that leads to tearing yourself down, but rather it leads to a self-abasement: “God, Your glory is so much greater and Your presence more powerful that I forget myself and long to praise You.” This humility is more honest in a way, because it draws us closer to God without showing ingratitude for what He has given, per Jefferson Bethke, “stop saying you’re dirt, stop saying you’re scum of the earth, you ought to be careful about how you talk about someone else’s work.”

After that, we petition for our personal needs and for protection. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask for our needs immediately after humbling ourselves, but it is actually logical. As noted before, you don’t ask for help from one inferior to you, so first being humble is necessary to be truly reliant on God. The Psalmist declares, “For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you” (Ps. 71:5-6). This statement is preceded and followed by supplications for support against his enemies. The Lord tells Jeremiah that He knew him before he was formed in the womb and had a purpose for him (Jer. 1:5), so there is both a recognition of God’s greater plan to which we are to submit, and of the necessity for us to lay our troubles before Him, as He is our confidence.

Honestly, if you walked into this with no idea how to pray, it’s likely you are still confused having read this. There are many more far superior resources that go into great depth on how to pray, what to pray, and when to pray (personally, I would suggest Life Together, by Bonhoeffer). This post is not intended to replace those. However, I think that modeling our prayer after the elements presented in Matthew 6 is a good place to start.

The problem with my website wasn’t faulty code, HTML still worked to produce webpages. It wasn’t the book’s directions. It was the utter lack of creative spark. I had taken the elements and examples presented in the books and placed them into my code without ingenuity. My page looked exactly the same as the models, and was, to be honest, boring.

Fingerprints are interesting because of their uniqueness. For many people, thinking of fingerprints brings to mind cop shows, where pulling a fingerprint might serve as the vital piece of evidence to put away a killer. Even the word “fingerprint” has come to mean a trademark or distinguishing  feature. At the end of the day, however, the ridges have the same purpose, no matter what they look like: to help the hand grip. Maybe if I had taken more time designing ways to use the elements to create, rather than creating perfect elements, my page would have been better.


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