When I was first saved, I loved talking to God and seeing Him work. I still do. Yet, I now see that there is a lot to be gained from a little structure, like actually having a regular quiet time where I pray the Bible.
I was almost 30 and had been in the Marine Corps for about a decade when God abruptly entered my life in a Damascus Road type of experience. The spiritual change was immediate, but my ignorance of spiritual things was entrenched. I knew nothing about God except that He was real, He was personal, and that I was His. These basic realizations made prayer the most natural thing in the world for me.
From the point of my conversion forward, I wanted to do everything in my life by reference to God, and so I needed to be constantly talking to Him. I was naïve and overwhelmed, but I had not yet thought that I could pray wrongly. It was clear to me that God was God and I was not; therefore, I had no problem with deferring to Him, no real desire to get my own way, and no inclination to ask merely for the benefits package. However, as I learned more and became increasingly exposed to private and public prayer, I realized that my way of doing it had some deficiencies.
How did this realization hit? First, I read about true prayer in the Bible. Second, I observed or experienced some issues with prayer, particularly with Session and in corporate prayer gatherings. Third, I recognized that the biblical condemnations of praying wrongly might apply in different ways to committed Christians.
Below are some of the errors in prayer that I have witnessed or fallen into over the course of Christian life. My hope is that this brief list highlights some things all of us – and especially us ruling elders – need to be careful about while trying to serve the church.
The first of these “prerrors” (if I can coin the term) is hypocrisy. In Matthew 6:5, Christ warns us not to pray like the hypocrites, who are people who like to be seen publicly as holy and righteous. Because they are looking for public approval, they do not gain God’s approval. I do not think I have seen an awful lot of hypocritical grand-standing in PCA churches, but I have experienced a different problem with hypocrisy as an elder. The problem on my mind is that the awareness of my own tendency toward hypocrisy can paralyze me.
My sin makes me want not to pray, especially publicly, because I am aware of the all-too-present danger of hypocrisy. I know intellectually that this paralysis can only happen if I am listening to the enemy and not to God, so I have found a couple of practices that help with addressing this. I have to first constantly remind myself that when the paralysis strikes, it is because I am adopting a works-oriented view of myself. Of course I am not good enough on my own to earn God’s approval. Christ alone is perfectly righteous, but I enjoy that perfect righteousness of Christ as my own through faith in Him. To allow remaining sin to cripple me in my walk and duties is concomitant to denying that my name is written on His hand. Then I think about 1 John 1:9, which says that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Reminding myself that I am judged by Jesus’ performance and not my own, and confessing my sins without reservation, have helped me deal with my feeling of hypocrisy and to pray publicly without this paralyzing self-focus.
The second prerror is vain repetition. God denounces this in Matthew 6:7, where Christ cautions His disciples against imitating the babbling of Gentiles and pagans, who say meaningless words and have meaningless practices. By contrast, the Christian is here called to pray with faith and trust, enjoying a freedom of expression like that which exists between a child and a loving father who already knows that child’s needs.