In Chapter 1 of my book When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer titled “I Forget Why Prayer Matters”, I share an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:9–13. Writing this foundational chapter drove me to worship in amazing ways.
You can preview my book by reading the chapter below or watching this 25-minute video of me reading the chapter. Stay tuned until the end of the video for some background on the chapter and the book!
To learn why prayer is important and how to overcome obstacles in prayer, read When Prayer Is a Struggle, a great book on prayer for small groups. Available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions.
Chapter 1: “I Forget Why Prayer Matters”
“I pray because I crave fellowship with my Father. I pray because it shrinks me, my problems, and other people to their proper size. I pray because it’s the best way to get the gospel deep into my heart.” —Jack Miller, quoted by Scotty Smith
The late newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst collected great works of art. One day he heard about some valuable art treasures that he wanted for his collection. So he sent his agent on a search to track down the works. Months passed without success. Then one day the agent finally tracked down information about the owner of the works. After months of waiting, Hearst was surprised to learn that the owner was none other than . . . William Randolph Hearst! He had gone to great pains to obtain what he already had access to. He’d forgotten what he already had.
In our spiritual lives, we are often plagued by a similar forget- fulness. So many Christians forget the riches of the gospel that belong to us in Christ. We long for something that can immediately satisfy, but we forget God and prayer and look for satisfaction in other places. This spiritual forgetfulness opens us up to many spiritual deficiencies.
Before we get too invested in any activity, we first need to understand the why behind what we’re doing. Business leaders have caught on to this and realize that consumers won’t buy in to a product or service unless they understand the why behind it. When we don’t have clarity about why we pray, the what (the content of our prayers) and the how (the way that we pray) will suffer.
AWESOME NEWS AND FORGETFUL HEARTS
Through our redemption in Christ, we have a direct line to heaven. God never sends His children to voicemail or rejects their calls. And yet none of us pray as we should. We still forget to pray and forget why prayer matters. We wonder whether prayer works. We don’t feel like praying unless a trial or major need brings us to our knees, and then once the trial passes or the need is provided for, we go back to our forgetful ways.
Prayer sometimes feels like an annoying item on our to-do lists, similar to paying our bills or flossing our teeth. We are tempted to think about prayer in legalistic terms—as if God’s acceptance of us is based solely on the quality or frequency of our prayers. Other times, prayer seems boring and slow in a fast world of noise and entertainment that offers instant gratification. Sometimes it’s the hectic pace of our lives that keeps us from prayer.
I’m convinced that every reason behind our inclination to forget the why of prayer is the result of one foundational issue: our lack of faith. As I said in this book’s introduction, we can’t please God, or truly pray, without faith (see Heb. 11:6). We may think that we are praying, but without faith, the recitation of many words or the mindless mouthing of familiar phrases means nothing to God (see Matt. 6:7).
Now that we’ve talked about why we forget to pray, let’s move on to one of the most important questions that we can ask: Why pray in the first place?
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray through what’s known as the Lord’s Prayer (see Matt. 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4), He gave them, and us, the basic grid for what we should pray. What we may not realize is that, through this prayer, He also gives us seven reasons for why we should pray.
In the English Standard Version’s rendition of Matthew 6:9– 13, the Lord’s Prayer has a mere fifty-two words (fifty-seven in the Greek). If I saw a fifty-two-word review of a product that I was considering buying, I’d probably look for one that was longer and more helpful! And yet these simple words of Jesus provide a comprehensive outlook on both prayer and the Christian life. The late theologian J. I. Packer tells us, “The Lord’s Prayer in particular is a marvel of compression, and full of meaning. It is a compendium of the gospel (Tertullian), a body of divinity (Thomas Watson), a rule of purpose as well as of petition, and thus a key to the whole business of living. What it means to be a Christian is nowhere clearer than here.”
We must look at prayer from God’s perspective; He’s the one to whom we pray, and His perspective is the only one that matters. As we walk through the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we not only will see God’s reasons for why we should pray but will also see a glimpse into the heart He has for the world—and for us. He wants to use this prayer to shape your own heart. Will you let Him?
Pray because God Is Your Father (“Our Father in Heaven”)
Prayer is unabashedly God-centered. The first half of the Lord’s Prayer focuses on Him, which is a vitally important thing for naturally selfish people in an individualistic age to do. While the second half focuses on our needs, it exalts Him as well— because only a sovereign God could provide what He offers, and only a loving God would offer it in the first place.
The first two words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” indicate relationship. One surefire way to get off track during prayer is to forget the nature of this relationship. Some see God as a boss who will be happy with us as long as we put in the spiritual work of praying and see results. (You might call this a contractual approach to prayer.) Others see him as an ATM or Santa Claus– like figure who will automatically give us what we want without having any interest in a real relationship. Or perhaps God is like the Force in Star Wars, and prayer to this impersonal “force” is nothing more than throwing wishful thinking into the air and hoping that the winds of the universe blow in our direction. But for those who are in Christ, God is Father.
If there’s one thing that I want every reader of this book to take away with them, it’s that God loves you unconditionally as a Father. Before we had saving faith in Christ, Scripture says we were enemies of God (see Rom. 5:6–10), dead in sin (see Eph. 2:1), sons of disobedience (see Eph. 2:2), and children of wrath (see Eph. 2:3). The glorious truth of the gospel is that despite our wickedness and opposition to God, He sent His Son to the cross for sinners like us (see Rom. 5:8) and now adopts us into His family as beloved children. He fills us with His Spirit to testify of His love for us (see Rom. 5:5) and to enable us to cry “Abba! Father!” to Him in prayer (see Rom. 8:15–16). A good earthly father cares for his children, wants them to come to him when they’re in pain, and wants to provide for their every need. How much more does our perfect Father in heaven care for us and want to hear from us—His beloved children!
I recently met a Christian woman from Ireland and heard her testimony. For many years she lived as a content unbeliever who had dabbled in religion in the past. A friend invited her to a Bible study, and she decided to go. “I had no idea what was going on when they studied the Bible. But when they prayed—oh, how they prayed!—they prayed like they actually knew God! And that told me I needed what they had.” She recognized that a real relationship with God the Father is possible and that it is oh, so good.
When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, don’t skip past “Our Father.” Dwell on God’s character and His relationship with you. Remember His redemptive work throughout human history. Rejoice in His extravagant grace—because “to grasp [God as Father] is to know oneself rich and privileged beyond any monarch or millionaire.”
Pray because You Want His Name to Be Praised (“Hallowed Be Your Name”)
To hallow means to treat as holy, to revere, to sanctify. Hallowing God’s name means not taking it lightly. God loves the glory of His name enough to build the honoring of it into the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7). The root of the Hebrew word for vain connotes “emptiness” or “nothingness.” Using God’s name in an empty way doesn’t convey the honor and glory that He is due.
Heaven is the gold standard for demonstrating the proper way God’s name is to be exalted. The book of Revelation repeatedly pulls back the curtain to reveal how God’s name is exalted in the heavenly worship of angels and saints. Here’s one example.
Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed. (Rev. 15:3–4)
Unfortunately, our world falls far short of heaven’s standard. God’s name is used as a cuss word or a punchline and is even openly mocked. “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles,” writes Paul in Romans 2:24, in reference to the prophet Isaiah. And yet it’s not just the Gentiles who blaspheme God’s name; Paul’s next words, “because of you,” indicate that even God’s people can dishonor His holy name by living sinful lives. That’s why Jesus wants us to start our prayers with worship, by saying “Hallowed be Your name.”
When we pray, “Hallowed be Your name,” we ask for God to exalt His name in all the earth. We ask for all people to honor and glorify His name. And we ask for His help to live in a way that honors Him. We ask Him to help us to glorify Him in all we do (see 1 Cor. 10:31). He is worthy!
Pray because You Want His Kingly Rule to Expand (“Your Kingdom Come”)
Several years ago, while on a trip in order to train pastors in Latin America, I sat in a pastor’s office in one of Ecuador’s largest cities while preparing my heart to preach in thirty minutes’ time. Pastor Jaime offered me coffee and started sharing the history of his church’s building. I was a little confused at first (I don’t normally enjoy hearing anecdotes of foreign real-estate transactions before I preach), but soon Jaime’s story gripped me.
Jaime and his wife Lirio had been grieving the destructive impact that a local nightclub was making on their community: local youth were being led astray, households were being destroyed, and crime rates were increasing. So Jaime and Lirio began to pray for the nightclub to close. They continued to pray for about five years—until one day, by God’s grace, it closed. The building where it had been sat empty for two years.
Meanwhile, God was reaching people through the church that Jaime was pastoring, so the church sent Jaime and his family to plant a new branch of the congregation. But where would it meet? Jaime and his church family prayed for a location that would help him to reach more people with the gospel. And the best option turned out to be the former nightclub that was sitting empty. After discussing the opportunity with the building’s owner and sharing the gospel with him, Jaime bought the building for half the asking price. Now the church meets in the former night-club—proclaiming the gospel in the community, strengthening families, and reaching youth in the process. Crime in the area even went down. God turned a den of darkness into an embassy for Christ’s kingdom. By praying for the closure of the nightclub and for the gospel to be advanced through their ministry, Jaime and Lirio were praying for God’s kingdom to come.
God is working all throughout human history to build a people for Himself. While even the greatest nations on earth come and go, God’s kingdom is eternal. While earthly nations have fixed borders, God’s kingdom encompasses people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Jesus is building His church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it (see Matt. 16:18). That is true whether you’re in Quito, Quebec, or Queensland.
To pray “Your kingdom come” is to express our longing for God’s perfect rule on earth. It is to bow before King Jesus and forsake our personal kingdoms. It is to acknowledge the transience of earthly kingdoms and their true place in history (see Ps. 2; Dan. 2). It is to ask for God to bring salvation to the lost and judgment to His enemies. With these words, we pray that He will cripple the domain of darkness and speed ahead the advance of the kingdom of light. We ask Him to help us to live with His kingdom in mind as we raise our kids and talk to our neighbors.
Praying “Your kingdom come” also helps us to look ahead to the ultimate ushering in of His kingdom—one that is closer to you than when you first started reading this chapter—when “the dwelling place of God [will be] with man” and when “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 21:3–4). Come, Lord Jesus!
Pray because You Want His Perfect Will to Be Done (“Your Will Be Done, on Earth as It Is in Heaven”)
I still remember when I heard the news—Mom had cancer and needed immediate surgery. But a successful surgery didn’t fully take the cancer away. Our family prayed for healing and persevered with my mom, for three and a half years, through chemo treatments, hospital visits, encouraging prognoses, and discouraging ones, while shedding many tears along the way. When the outlook was bleak, we prayed for more time, and God mercifully granted her the health to attend my wedding as well as my brother’s five weeks later. But on March 22, 2016, with our whole family huddled around her bed, Denise Halloran breathed her last. Moments after we saw my mom pass into the Lord’s presence, my dad quoted Job 1:21: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
God wants us to pray “Your will be done,” as Christ did in the garden (Matt. 26:42), to help us to acknowledge that His ways, wisdom, and purposes are higher than ours. To remind ourselves of our creatureliness and His omnipotence. To humble ourselves.
When we don’t pray in a posture that says “Your will be done,” we are shaking our fists at God and saying, “My will is better!” Such pride makes prayers ineffective, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). That’s not to say that we can’t wrestle with God in prayer, but at the end of the day we must humbly submit to our Maker out of confidence in His good and eternal purposes for us (see Rom. 8:28–29). Only when we submit to God’s will can we worship while in tremendous pain.
“Prayer is surrender,” writes E. Stanley Jones—“surrender to the will of God and cooperation with that will. If I throw out a boathook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.” Sometimes our most genuine worship comes in the wake of bad news, when we can say from the depths of our hearts, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” and “Your will be done.”
Pray because You Need His Provision (“Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”)
Because “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV), we can confidently ask our omnipotent Creator to meet our needs—He owns it all anyway! When we ask for His provision of any need we have (bread, a job, finances, wisdom, encouragement, faith, strength to endure persecution, safety, or guidance for a life situation), we acknowledge His power to provide as well as our reliance on Him. When we recite this petition from the Lord’s Prayer and think of all that He has provided throughout the decades of our lives, we grow grateful to our Provider. When we pray for our daily bread, we also expand our horizons by being led to think of others in need and how God may want to use us to provide for them.
Although this petition focuses on our temporal needs, it also reminds us of God’s greater spiritual provision. Yes, we need physical bread and other material goods. But at a more foundational level, we need spiritual bread. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Elsewhere, He said that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; see also Deut. 8:3). Our spiritual appetite is satisfied only by God’s Word, written and incarnate.
We have great needs in this world—both physical and spiritual. And our great God and King “will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God’s provision won’t always look the way we expect or come according to our timing, but we can be confident that He wouldn’t teach us to pray for provision if He weren’t willing and able to provide exactly what we needed.
Pray because You Need His Forgiveness (“Forgive Us Our Debts, as We Also Have Forgiven Our Debtors”)
This next petition reminds us how important relationships are to God. We need God’s forgiveness when we sin, and we need to extend forgiveness to others when they sin against us. If we didn’t do this, how could we follow the first and second Great Commandments—to love God and love our neighbors (see Matt. 22:37–40)?
We first ask God to forgive us our “debts,” which we incur when we come up short in fulfilling our duty, and which are known simply as sin (see the wording of the parallel passage in Luke 11:4). While believers can rest confidently because Christ has paid for their sins on the cross (see Rom. 8:1), our sin grieves the Holy Spirit of God (see Eph. 4:30) and thus hinders our ability to commune with God through the Spirit. When we ask Him for pardon, we acknowledge our sinfulness—as well as our inability to do anything about it on our own. Our only hope is to issue a desperate cry for help, from a broken heart, to a faithful Father who hears. His loving heart is moved to forgive, because the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross covers our sin and makes forgiveness possible.
Tying our forgiveness (by saying “forgive us our debts”) with the forgiveness we grant to others (when we say “as we also have forgiven our debtors”) reminds us that forgiven people forgive (see Matt. 18:21–35; Eph. 4:32). Other people let us down in many ways and don’t pay us what they owe—be it respect, time, energy, or something else. But we can’t let their failure prohibit us from loving them as God desires. If we do, the weeds of bitterness, anger, jealousy, and hatred grow in our hearts. God wants His children to walk in love with Him and with one another. Our past sin hinders this, and that’s why the next petition requests protection from future sin.
Pray because You Need His Deliverance (“Lead Us Not into Temptation, but Deliver Us from Evil”)
After God signs our adoption papers and welcomes us to His family, He signs our enlistment papers for a spiritual battle. It’s a battle that we’ve been in since birth, but we don’t see it until the Spirit opens our eyes.
“Lead us not into temptation” is a plea for God’s help with fighting our internal battle against “the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). This petition acknowledges the weakness of our flesh and our willpower in the face of temptation. It’s a reminder that sin is deceptive and that our only hope is to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10). As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen horrible sin crop up in many people’s lives where you would least expect it, making me realize how weak and vulnerable we all are. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” warns the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 10:12). Praying for God’s help reminds us that He won’t let us be tempted beyond what we can endure and that He promises a way of escape (see 1 Cor. 10:13).
Praying “Deliver us from evil” reminds us of the battle that we also fight with an external enemy. Some translations say, “Deliver us from the evil one”—referring to Satan. Satan hates God’s people and their prayers, and he will do whatever he can to keep us from praying. When we pray for deliverance from evil, we acknowledge God’s power to deliver us due to His supremacy over every spiritual being (see Eph. 1:20–21; Col. 1:16). We express our desire for “increases of God’s grace [to] continually be showered upon us, until, completely filled therewith, we triumph over all evil.” We need God’s deliverance from evil spiritual powers and from human pawns of the enemy that seek to devour us as a lion does its prey (see 1 Peter 5:8). Prayers for deliverance from enemies pervade the Psalms (see Pss. 35; 59; 140; 143), and the apostle Paul repeatedly asked even fellow believers to pray for him to be delivered from his human enemies (see Rom. 15:30–33; 2 Cor. 1:8–11; 2 Thess. 3:1–5). Why should we think we’re immune?
REMEMBERING WHY PRAYER MATTERS
We pray in order to glorify God. We pray in order to unify our hearts with His kingdom vision for the world and to align ourselves with His will. We pray for provision, restored relationships, and protection from the evil that comes from both inside us and outside.
If you sometimes realize that you’ve gone for almost a whole day (or for several days) without even thinking of God or prayer, take heart. I’ve been there too, and many other believers have as well. But you can’t stay there. Don’t forget that prayer flows from faith—and because of that, perhaps the most effective action to take in order to remember the purpose of prayer is to pray for faith that will go on to express itself in prayer.
How might you grow your faith? How might you remind yourself of the importance of prayer? I try to keep reminders always before me: a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, framed art containing the Lord’s Prayer in my kitchen, a daily phone notification that asks me if it’s “Time to Pray.” I try as best as I can to build prayer into my relationships, for a little added accountability, as well as into my routines, so that it becomes a habit. As I fellowship regularly with the church, prayer becomes more natural.
As with all the struggles that we’ll examine in this book, the key to growth in this area is not immediate perfection; it is making small and faithful progress while remaining confident in who God is and in the gracious invitation He has offered us to pray. You will still lack faith. You will still sometimes forget why prayer matters. But over time you will better remember the why of prayer.
In the next chapter, we’ll look more closely at what the content of our prayers should be.
Dear heavenly Father, thank You for adopting me into Your family and giving Your Son for me. Thank You for the glorious and undeserved invitation you have offered me to come into Your presence through prayer. I admit that I often forget to pray and that, deep down, I lack faith. Stir in me a heart of prayer, by Your Spirit, and help me to grow as a person of humble, moment-by-moment dependence on You. Please use this little book to show me how I can experience more of Your grandeur and glory through prayer. In Jesus’s name, amen.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
- What has most helped you to grow in prayer?
- Are you ever tempted to view God as a boss, an ATM, or an impersonal force like in Star Wars? How should viewing God as Father change your perspective?
- Of the seven reasons to pray that the Lord’s Prayer gives us, which one do you need to focus on the most?
- What changes can you make in your life to help you better remember God’s invitation to pray?
- Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Rich: Gaining the Things That Money Can’t Buy, NT Commentary (Ephesians), 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), chap. 3, Kindle.
- See Simon Sinek’s teaching in Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2009) and his TED talk called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” filmed at Puget Sound, Washington, September , video, 18:34, May 4, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3Sf I4.
- I am indebted to several resources for the material in this section: my pastor, Colin S. Smith’s, sermon series “Six Things to Ask of God” (The Orchard Evangelical Free Church, Arlington Heights, IL, May 3–June 7, 2020), available online at unlockingthebible.org/series/six-things-to-ask-of-god/; John Calvin’s treatment of the Lord’s Prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.34–49; and J. I. Packer’s exposition of it throughout “Learning to Pray: The Lord’s Prayer,” part 3 within Growing in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).
- In chapter 2 we will go into more detail about the content of our prayers.
- Packer, Growing in Christ, 136. I appreciate the words of Martin Luther found in A Simple Way to Pray, trans. Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012), 15, as well: “To this day, I nurse on the Lord’s Prayer like a little child, and as an old man now, I eat and drink from it, but never get my fill.” I’ll throw in another illustration: the Lord’s Prayer can simultaneously serve as a kiddie pool for learning the basics of prayer while also having a deep end that is so profound that the most mature believers will never plumb its depth.
- Packer, Growing in Christ, 146.
- The Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, ed. Francis Brown ”. ָשְׁוא“.with S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs (Oxford: ClarendonPress, 1977),s.v.
- See also Revelation 4:8–11; 5:9–14; 7:9–12; 11:17–19; 16:5–6; 19:1–9.
- E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 383, quoted in Kent Hughes and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from The Success Syndrome (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1988), 73.
- As the old hymn says, “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.” William Cowper, “What Various Hindrances We Meet,” 1779.
- Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, Books III.XX to IV.XX, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 3.20.46.