Have you ever had to unlearn something? I remember when I taught myself how to play the guitar. Even though I was hitting the right chords, I was playing them in the wrong way. I could still play, but the bad habits I taught myself hindered my playing and prevented me from getting better. Once I unlearned the wrong way to play chords and learned to play them correctly, I was able to transition to the next chord much easier and I began to improve.
When it comes to prayer, both privately and corporately, I have had to unlearn several poor habits and models. God has taught me a number of things about prayer over the last few years. He has especially taught me the importance of praying scripturally specific prayers—whether in my pastoral role of leading God’s people in corporate prayer or in my personal prayer life.
Author Daniel Henderson once remarked that if we were to take out the words “bless” and “be with” from our prayer vocabulary, we wouldn’t be left with much to say. I would only add to that the words, “in a special way.”
I’ve often wondered where and how these little, meaningless words entered into our private and corporate prayer vernacular—especially since we don’t use them in any other way. We tend to be very specific with our spouse, our children, our waiters, and even our pets! I have never once told my son, “Clean up your room in a special way.” No! I am specific: “Son, make your bed, hang up your baseball hat, pick up your cleats and glove.”
Please understand that I am not encouraging a “name it and claim it” theology. Paul prayed specifically for God to remove his “thorn” three times and God did not answer that prayer—at least the way Paul wanted it answered. Jesus prayed to his Father to remove the cup of suffering from him, but Jesus also embraced God’s will over his specific request. God always answers prayer according to his will. God wants us to pray about our heart’s desires. Since James 4:2 tells us we have not because we ask not, it is our responsibility to ask. And we must ask with the right motivation: His glory, his kingdom, his will.
Not only should we be specific in our praying, but we should also be thoroughly scriptural. Perhaps one of the most obvious ways that we can pray scripturally and specifically is by praying specific prayers that are already revealed to us in Scripture. Think about it this way: Which prayer request best reflects how we should pray? “Lord, be with my kids in a special way”? Or, “Lord, I pray that my children will grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18)? Which prayer request best reflects how Scriptures teaches us to pray? “Lord, help our church service tonight in a special way”? or, “Lord, as we approach your Word tonight, let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19)?
Which prayer request best reflects how we should pray? “Lord, be with my kids in a special way”? Or, “Lord, I pray that my children will grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18)?
In light of that, allow me to offer the following suggestions and a model to follow for pastors or those in charge of leading prayer times at their church. Obviously, this would work for private prayer as well.
1. Select a portion of Scripture to read before your prayer time and make that Scripture the focus of your adoration.
As you read through Scripture corporately, look for what the passage says about God and his character; in your prayer time, give God specific praise for the attributes you’ve discovered. Perhaps one reason we’ve failed to pray specially is that we’ve also failed to praise specifically. Take Isaiah 40:28-29 and 41:10, for example. Read these verses together and then praise God specifically for who he is:
- God is Lord (Isa. 40:28).
- God is eternal (Isa. 40:28).
- God is creator (Isa. 40:28).
- God’s wisdom has no limit (Isa. 40:28).
- God is other-oriented (Isa. 40:29).
- God is always with us; God is present (Isa. 41:10).
- God is personal (Isa. 41:10).
- God gives strength (Isa. 41:10).
- God takes care of his children (Isa. 41:10).
- God is righteous (Isa. 41:10).
- God is powerful (Isa. 41:10).
2. Select a portion of Scripture to read before your prayer time and make that Scripture the focus of your confession.
Confession is a major motif in Scripture that should not be ignored because of our theological presuppositions. Confession is a type of agreement; for Christians, it is coming into agreement with God: “God, I agree with you about my need for you.” In regard to sin, it is saying, “God, I agree that my ways are wrong, and your ways are right.” Confession means agreeing with God about the things that you have done wrong. It’s a time to express sorrow about what you have said, thought, or done that is not pleasing to him. Author Dick Eastman said, “Confession is to verbalize our spiritual shortcomings…simply stated, confession is the act of declared admission.”
What does this look like corporately? Begin by reading Psalm 50 together and then confess together areas of your life that this passage has revealed where you have fallen short. Confess to God:
- The times where you have rejected or even despised his discipline (v. 17a).
- The times where you have disregarded his words (v. 17b).
- The times you have delighted in things you should not have delighted in (v. 18).
- The times where you have been careless with your words (v. 19).
- The times where you have spoken against another person (v. 20).
3. Select a portion of Scripture to read before your prayer time and make that Scripture the focus of your thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is when we thank God for the grace and mercy that he has shown toward us. Thanksgiving and adoration are connected, but also different. Adoration focuses on who God is; thanksgiving focuses on what God has done for us.
A church, corporately and collectively, has much to give thanks for. But why not try a scriptural and specific approach to thanksgiving? Read Isaiah 44 together as a church and thank God…
- That with God we have nothing to fear (vs. 2, 8).
- That he has given us his Holy Spirit (v. 3).
- That he knows us by name (v. 5).
- That there is no one like him and he is our Rock (v. 8).
- That he has not forgotten us, even those who have sinned so egregiously against God (v. 21).
- That he does not treat us as our sins deserve (v. 22).
- That he has blotted out our sins (v. 22).
- That he is our Redeemer (vv. 22-24).
4. Select a portion of Scripture to read before your prayer time and make that Scripture the focus of your supplications.
Supplication is simply bringing our requests and petitions before God. But most pastors will tell you that prayer request time can be quite interesting and at times distracting. Author Daniel Henderson humorously states that our prayer request time often turns into an “organ recital [with] concerns about Paula’s pancreas, Larry’s liver, Sarah’s stomach, and Artie’s appendix.”
When it comes to prayer, both privately and corporately, I have had to unlearn several poor habits and models.
D. A. Carson, in his outstanding book A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, asks a powerful question that should motivate us to evaluate the nature of our supplications:
We must ask ourselves how far the petitions we commonly present to God are in line with what Paul prays for. Suppose, for example, that 80 or 90 percent of our petitions ask God for good health, recovery from illness, safety on the road, a good job, success in exams, the emotional needs of our children, success in our mortgage application, and much more of the same. How much of Paul’s praying revolves around equivalent items? If the center of our praying is far removed from the center of Paul’s praying, then even our very praying may serve as a wretched testimony to the remarkable success of the processes of paganization in our life and thought.
The book 5 Things to Pray for Your Church by Rachel Jones has been extremely helpful for me when implementing this principle. How can a church implement this? Read 1 Peter 2:9-10 together as a church and pray together that you…
- Become a holy people (v. 9).
- Become a royal priesthood and represent people before God and God before people (v. 9).
- Become and behave as God’s special possession (v. 9).
- Fulfill God’s calling (v. 9).
- Become recipients of God’s divine mercy and offer that mercy to others (v. 10).
If you are a pastor, I encourage you to take four Sunday nights in a month and focus on one of the sections above. After the month is over, you will have prayed the A.C.T.S model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) corporately. You will also have focused more on God and his Word, and less on yourself. In doing so, you will begin to practice worship-based prayer more than a needs-based approach. Furthermore, you will help people hide God’s Word in their hearts and model for them the Biblical pattern of praying scripturally specific prayers.