Intro: Building off of last week’s series, where we ended with “Keep Walking”, this week’s series is “First Steps”. Now, if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, don’t think this isn’t for you. There are some good reminders in here of things we can do to strengthen our walk, and of why we do them. So this week we’re going to look at Daily Devotionals, Bible Study, Prayer, Obedience, and Acts of Service. I want to be clear: these things do not make you a Christian or get you to Heaven. They make you a better Christian, they strengthen your connection to God and your understanding of Him, which will have indescribable benefits for you both here on earth and in Heaven.
- You don’t have to start with “Dear God” and end with “Amen”, as if you’re addressing a letter to heaven.
- You don’t have to recite a pre-written prayer.
- You don’t have to have all the same pieces that Jesus had in The Lord’s Prayer.
- You don’t have to be in church, or with a church leader. You also don’t have to be alone.
- You don’t have to pray out loud. You also don’t have to pray silently.
- You don’t have to pray with your eyes closed or with your hands folded or on your knees. You also don’t have to pray with your head and eyes turned upward and your hands raised.
Now, sometimes those things are helpful. You can find Bible verses that support each of those ideas – even the ones that contradict each other. But those guidelines were written to help us, not to be requirements that make prayer into some magical incantation that we have to get just right.
At the very baseline, prayer is you talking to God. Usually you’re asking Him for something, or thanking Him for something, and that’s fine. But there are also examples in the Bible of people complaining to God. This is Jonah’s prayer after surviving the whale and preaching to the Ninevites that Jonah didn’t like – and who God then saved.
Jonah 4:2-3 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Seriously, Jonah! Complaining to God about God being good to other people! What the heck! But do you know what God’s response was to Jonah’s belly-aching? He reasoned with him. He met Jonah right where Jonah was at, in the middle of all Jonah’s feels about how the Ninevites didn’t deserve to be saved. That’s not the only example of God’s response to truly awful prayers. Back in the first book of Kings, Elijah screws up majorly – he has all the prophets of the false god Baal slaughtered out of spite. Then he realizes he has screwed up:
1 Kings 19:4-5 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
You know what God’s response was? He sent an angel to give him food and water. Daily. Until Elijah was finally in a place (geographically and mentally) where he could listen to God again.
Now, these are two really bad examples of prayer. But you know what? They’re also really good examples of prayer. Both of these people really believed they were talking directly to God. They weren’t just saying words to thin air. (We can know this because of their history of service to God.) And both of them were being 100% honest with God about how they felt. There’s no point in being dishonest with God, or putting on airs when you talk to God. You don’t need to use the “sandwich method” of criticism – good thing, bad thing, good thing. Come on – you know you do that. “Thank you Lord for ___. Please fix ___. I know you’re a powerful and faithful God! Amen.”
Just. Talk. To. God.
I’ll give you a pass if you want to keep praying “normally” when you’re around other people. (Whatever that means for you.) But as a first step, today, try talking to God as if He is a person sitting right next to you. Pray as if He is someone you really trust with all your good and bad and happy and sad and angry and doubtful and … everything you actually are deep inside. If you aren’t sure you really trust Him with all that, maybe start by telling Him you don’t know how to trust Him yet. You can’t get more honest than that. But talk to God. Pray.