Peter Marshall, the Scottish-American pastor who was also Chaplain to the United States Senate, offered this prayer about prayer in the 1940’s:
Lord, teach us to pray. Some of us are not skilled in the art of prayer. As we draw near to thee in thought, our spirits long for thy Spirit, and reach out for thee, longing to feel thee near. We know not how to express the deepest emotions that lie hidden in our hearts.
In these moments, we have no polished phrases with which to impress one another, no finely moulded, delicately turned clauses to present to thee. Nor would we be confined to conventional petitions and repeat our prayers like the unwinding of a much-exposed film. We know, our Father that we are praying most when we are saying least. We know that we are closest to thee when we have left behind the things that have held us captive so long.
We would not be ignorant in prayer and, like children, make want lists for thee. Rather, we pray that thou wilt give unto us only what we really need. We would not make our prayers the importuning of thee, an omnipotent God, to do what we want thee to do. Rather, give us the vision, the courage, that shall enlarge our horizons and stretch our faith to the adventure of seeking thy loving will for our lives.
We thank thee that thou art hearing us even now. We thank thee for the grace of prayer. We thank thee for thyself.
The last scriptural teaching about prayer is an image and a scent: bowls made of gleaming gold, filled with smoldering incense, wisps of smoke wafting upward, pungent to anyone standing nearby, but even more so to the God to whom they are directed—these are “the prayers of all the saints” (Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4). We are to supposed to associate this with the smoke of the sacrifices of the Old Testament, “an offering made by fire, a pleasing aroma” to God. Now prayer and praise are at the center of our sacrifice to God. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise —the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb. 13:15).
Perhaps we could let ourselves be inspired by imagining an angel assigned to our churches like the one in Revelation holding a golden bowl of incense which are the prayers of the saints in our churches. This pleasing aroma goes forth to God from the prayer meetings, the Bible studies, the worship services, the hospital rooms, the youth groups—wherever prayers are offered to God and in whatever sincere fashion they are offered. Then there are the multitudes of private prayers offered to God by people in their kitchens, their cars, their offices, their bedrooms. These are the hidden prayers, the “secret” prayers that Jesus promoted (Matt. 6:6). Taken all together these prayers are short and long, spontaneous and planned, composed and extemporaneous, shouted and whispered. God takes it all.
That we should pray is a given. We will also assume that most of us long for there to be more prayer in our lives. Prayer is not to be done for prayer’s sake and prayer vitality is not simply measured by the prayer programs we promote. Prayer is about God and our link with God. Prayer is a dialogue. It is speaking and listening, always believing that the voice of God will be louder than our own.
It is perfectly appropriate to speak about the subjective influence of prayer. When we pray we are not changing who God is, but God is changing who we are.
All of us desire to be faithful in prayer; for it to flow through our lives and be as natural as anything else. We frequently wrestle with prayer because there is a multitude of other things that crowd it out, and it takes faith and patience to believe that it is worth our time. But as John Stott has pointed out, prayer in its best form is a direct extension of our created humanity:
Men and women are at their noblest and best when they are on their knees before God in prayer. To pray is not only to be truly godly; it is also to be truly human. For here are human beings, made by God like God and for God, spending time in fellowship with God. So prayer is an authentic activity in itself, irrespective of any benefits it may bring us. Yet it is also one of the most effective of all means of grace. I doubt if anybody has ever become at all Christlike who has not been diligent in prayer.
The following prayer, “Praise to God the Father,” goes through the attributes of God, praising him for the ways in which he is GREAT and GOOD.