I once heard another believer give a stirring talk on prayer. Everything was profoundly encouraging until he said the following:
“If you don’t spend at least two hours in prayer each day, how can you expect to live a godly life?”
That sentence startled me because we just don’t see that in the Bible. Yes, it’s good to spend time in prayer. Two hours even. And prayer IS essential for sanctification. I know his statement was meant to encourage, but it may have wound up having the opposite effect in the long run, because it was legalistic.
Legalism is trying to earn God’s approval by our works, in this case our prayers or prayer life. Legalism often adds rules to our faith that God never gave us.
There are two main ways we can be legalistic about prayer: thinking too much about the quality and quantity of our prayers.
Overemphasizing quality might subtly believe that we can cajole God with the right mix of external factors like eloquence, passion, intonation, or fist pumps and hand raises. (This might be especially evident in group prayer.) Overemphasizing the quantity of our prayers acts as if God is keeping a quota for the number of times we pray or a stopwatch to track the length of our prayers.
Thankfully, a glance at biblical teaching on prayer shows that God cares about our heart posture in prayer and the content of our prayers instead of more arbitrary measures like quantity or quality.
I’d like to give recovering legalists some encouragement as we think about what God wants and doesn’t want in terms of the quality and quantity of our prayers.
The Quality of Our Prayers
There is nothing wrong with prayers that sound good or are emotional, assuming they’re prayed with the right heart. In fact, I want to help you improve the quality of our prayers by making their content as biblical as they can be. But we must not think we can bribe God to answer our prayers based on their quality.
We can’t forget that God is our Father. Think how ridiculous it would be for an earthly father to only pay attention to his children if they worded their requests JUUUUST right or with the right intonation.
I have young kids. Sometimes when we’ll have a gathering with other families, I’ll hear a kid start crying in the other room. You know what happens. All the parents’ ears perk up and we ask ourselves two questions: first, is that my kid? And second, if it is my kid, what kind of cry is it? Is it an overtired cry? A hungry cry? A “Someone took my toy cry” or a they’re-actually-in-physical-pain cry? There’s a huge difference, and parents can tell quickly.
If that’s true of human parents for their children, how much more does God know the cries and petitions of His children? Remember, Jesus taught that God knows what we need before we even ask! And He warns against heaping up ‘many words’ or ‘empty phrases’ to earn God’s attention. God hears us because we are His children, not because we are so awesome in prayer.
The Quantity of Our Prayers
The Bible offers no time length prescriptions or quotas for our prayers—you have to pray X times a day for X number of minutes for it to “count” in God’s eyes. If it did, we would probably care more about watching a clock and checking off boxes to fulfill our spiritual duties than seeking God.
God wants us to pray in faith, with the right hearts, for the right things. And while God calls us to pray continually, this doesn’t mean we can’t eat, sleep, talk to family and friends, and live a normal life. Jesus Himself didn’t spend every waking moment in prayer, but He continually prayed throughout His life.
One thing that has encouraged me is the brevity of many of the prayers of Scripture. They’re so short!
- If you time yourself praying the Lord’s Prayer verbatim, it takes about twenty seconds.
- Paul’s prayers range from a few seconds long to about seventy-five seconds to pray.
- Jesus’ prayer on the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” is about three seconds long.
- Nehemiah 2 records that in the middle of an important conversation Nehemiah “[prayed] to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4)—and while we don’t know the content of this prayer, we do know that God answered it and did great things in the nation of Israel because of it.
Praise God that He doesn’t give harsh quotas for the length or frequency of our prayers!
Encouragement for Recovering Legalists
It’s interesting to note that a good deal of biblical commands to pray come with a promise of the amazing results that prayer can have. This means that these commands to pray are not to burden us, but rather to inspire us. Here are just three examples (with the amazing results bolded):
- Matthew 7:7–8 – We are commanded to ask, seek, and knock. But here are the promises:
“For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
- Jeremiah 33:3 – “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
- Philippians 4:6–7 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Don’t let a legalistic mindset make you focus on your own actions or efforts in prayer. Set your eyes on our gracious Father, and pray in confidence.
This article is adapted from the free Open the Bible for Leaders course Pray the Bible will introduce you to the benefits of praying the Bible as well as several tools for doing so. The course is designed for personal and small group use. The course serves as a companion course to my book When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide to Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer.