Allen H. Harris
A thirtyish man from Provincetown, whom I will call Mark, happened into the Sunday worship service of the tiny mission church we are part of on outer Cape Cod. He had not been to church for ten years. He had felt a need in his life and had decided to try a few churches to see if they had anything to offer.
Our small church has a sharing and prayer time as part of each worship service. Requests are offered, and people volunteer to pray for them.
I was surprised when I saw Mark back the next Sunday. We have many unbelieving visitors, but few return. So I asked him why he came back. He said he was intrigued to see people talk to God as if he were in the room—so much so that he went out on the beach that Sunday afternoon to try for the first time in his life to pray. He said it was a bit like going out on a first date. After a few pleasantries, he experienced an awkward silence because he didn’t know what to say. I was moved afresh as I heard him express such wonder at the idea of actually talking to the Creator of the universe and believing he was listening to him!
I am afraid that after years as a Christian, I have lost much of that wonder. I easily drift into some safe, pious repetitions, and I “heap up empty phrases,” thinking I will be heard for my “many words” (Matt. 6:7). I repeat over and over, “Help me to ...” or “Lead me ...”
We are told to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). The constant access that we have to God through Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross can make prayer seem trivial and occasionally almost a chore. I find that at times what I am calling “prayer” is really nothing more than fretting out loud. I tell God my concerns and find I am getting more depressed because I am simply reminding myself of all my problems and anxieties. I lack a sense of his presence or that he is really listening to me. I am simply fretting. I have found two antidotes to such faithless, self-centered jabbering.
The first antidote is to model my prayers after the pattern that the Lord Jesus gave us in what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6:9–13). The seven parts of this prayer give me an outline to get outside of myself, become more God-centered in my thinking, and thus build my faith and shape my requests in a way that pleases him.
First there is the address: “Our Father.” This reminds me that God is close. I have the privilege of calling him Father, or, more accurately, Daddy. It also reminds me that he is the Creator. He is in heaven, above and beyond his creation. He is able to do all things. So I am talking to the one who is infinitely wise and powerful, but who also loves me and cares for me because he has adopted me through his eternal Son. I feel cared for because he is my Father; I feel confident because he is in heaven with all power.
Then there are six requests. Three are focused on him and his glory: (1) that his name and reputation would be exalted above all—in all things, but particularly in my life and in the requests I am now making, (2) that his kingdom would come—more fully in my life, as well as in the near and far world in which I live, and (3) that his will would prevail in my life and world as fully as it does in heaven.
The other three requests are focused on me and my needs. I pray these after my thoughts and emotions have been shaped by centering my prayers on him. These three requests cover all my basic needs: (1) material: all that I need (bread, not cake) for myself, my family, and others (“our ... us”), (2) relational: peace with others through gospel-driven forgiveness, received from God, and reflected to others, and (3) spiritual: resisting the Evil One and obeying the Spirit in all the conflicts I will face this day.
This is a brief summary of the outline that the Lord Jesus gave us to shape our prayers. It sets the agenda for the conversation.
But there is also another kind of outline that I have come up with that helps me pour out my heart to the Lord in a more balanced way than if I just start speaking to him whatever comes to mind. Let me first say that there is nothing wrong with crying out to God spontaneously with whatever is on my mind, as a little child to his or her daddy. Paul Miller makes this point in his excellent book, A Praying Life (NavPress). He says we pray, not because we ought to, but because we simply can’t live life on our own. So prayer is coming to him as a child to our Father because we need him and love him. That book has affected the prayer lives of my wife and me more than any other book on prayer beside the Bible.
But if I pray only what comes to my mind, I find I drift into fretting out loud and focusing mostly on myself. So after I have read and meditated on some Scripture, before I pray, I take out a small piece of paper and draw a rectangle divided into six cells, with three on the top and three on the bottom. In each cell I put a symbol or letters at the top. Then I jot down brief thoughts in each cell.
In the upper left cell, I draw three rays coming down from a point. It depicts God’s glory. I write down a couple of word summaries of what I want to praise God for, which I saw in my Scripture reading just now. Praise dominates scriptural prayers (Ps. 104:33–34; Pss. 146–150; Heb. 13:15; Matt. 6:9). I might write “Father” from Matthew 6:9 or “in heaven: power” from the same verse. I then pause and worship him. I try to set aside ten minutes to simply dwell on him in adoration—or fifteen, if I use a hymnal to “tune my heart to sing his praise.” Try it. You may find it is the longest ten to fifteen minutes of your day at first. But soon you will look forward to it as the time that puts the rest of the day into perspective.
In the upper middle cell, I draw a cross to remind me of my need for forgiveness (1 John 1:8–9; Ps. 32:1–5). I jot down a couple of sins that God brings to mind. I use the particulars to focus on the root sins behind them. I confess that and seek a repentant heart. I go to the cross and remember he does not hold those sins against me. I thank him for that and ask for the Spirit’s help to recognize and forsake that sin today.
In the upper right cell I write “Th” to remind me to thank him for two or three blessings I have recently experienced (Rom. 1:21; contrast Ps. 118:1, 28–29; 1 Thess. 5:18; Eph. 5:20). I talk to God about them and enjoy his presence.
The bottom three cells are to guide my intercession,the last three requests of the Lord’s Prayer. In the left one, I write “P” for personal requests: for myself and what I am anxious about, for my wife and children, and for my friends, Christian and non-Christian. I write down just a word or two to focus the request, perhaps with a verse of Scripture to claim.
In the lower middle cell, I draw a triangle, representing the three purposes of my local church: worship, edification, and witness. Remember, the Lord’s Prayer is plural: our Father, give us... (also see Eph. 6:18). I jot down names of people and ministries. I keep it to just three to five items to focus on each day. Nothing discourages prayer like an endless, unrealistic prayer list that includes people you barely know or care about.
Finally, in the lower right cell, I draw a circle for the world. I pray for God’s kingdom to come (Matt. 6:10) in my community, my nation, and the world—politics, current events, missionaries. Again I jot down just three to five things, so I can concentrate and focus.
One last suggestion: in your quiet time alone (Matt. 6:6), focus on the top three cells; then take the sheet with you through the day to pray at odd times for the bottom items. The top three are more intimate and personal. If you connect with God on those, the others will be easier to pray for.
This is important: prayer is speaking to God, the one you love more than any other. It is more intimate than any relationship on earth. Neverbe tied to an outline that will destroy spontaneity. I would never say to my wife, “Don’t tell me what you need until you thank me for three or four things I have already given you.” You can imagine what that would do to our intimacy! Use the Six Cells as a helpful guide to give balance and increase intimacy, not to become a list to check off. Or don’t use it at all if it artificially constrains you. I am not suggesting you should pray this way. But it has helped me to pray in God-pleasing areas that I might overlook. And if it helps you, that is great.
Recently in our worship service I rejoiced as I heard Mark volunteer and pray a focused, simple, biblical prayer for another member of our body whom he had come to care for. The remarkable thing about prayer is that it is so simple that our children can do it as soon as they are able to stammer out a sentence. A young Christian like Mark can come boldly to the throne of grace to find mercy in time of need (Heb. 4:16). Yet prayer is also so mysterious that after my sixty years of praying, I still feel like I am in kindergarten. But God hears me because of Christ. I simply want to expand the conversation, so my heart is connecting to his heart more fully. These two guides, one from Scripture, and one simply a made-up framework, help me to grow in that.
Try them both this week. I hope they help you. Modify my Six Cells as it helps you. But by all means stick with the pattern our Lord taught us in Matthew 6:9–13 as a worthy guide for all of life.
The author is a semi-retired OP pastor-teacher available for consulting with churches and for preaching. He quotes the ESV.