Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray . . . ” (Luke 11:1–2, ESV).
Roughly 60 percent of Americans claim they pray daily. Another nearly 20 percent claim to pray weekly. Those statistics suggest that all kinds of praying is going on, yet there also seems to be evidence that what we call “prayer” doesn’t really fit God’s definition or expectations. If we dig under people’s reports about praying a lot, we would discover that many are going through the motions, treating prayer the same way they approach rolling dice.
Many feel frustrated about prayer even as they try to practice it. They often mention prayer without actually addressing God. When they do voice their prayers, they are talking to someone they don’t even know. To them, God is the complete stranger on the street they might ask for help if things get bad enough. How sad and empty prayer must feel for many of them—for many of us.
As we develop the core disciplines of a sincere faith, we must include work on prayer. Even those of us who have grown up around praying people need instruction. And who better to talk to us about prayer than Jesus Christ?
The twelve disciples spent three years hanging out with Jesus. They watched Him, traveled with Him, and listened to Him. There is no record they ever asked Him, “Lord, teach us to teach,” even though He was a master teacher. Not once did they say, “Lord, teach us how to do miracles,” though we know He worked awesome wonders. As far as we know, the disciples’ only request like this was, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
With a front-row seat to the life of Jesus Christ, what truly captured the disciples’ attention was His prayer life. Jesus had a habit of retreating from the demanding crowds and spending time alone with His Father in conversation, as seen in Mark 1:35. “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Exposed to Jesus 24/7, the disciples concluded, “The thing we’ve got to figure out is the prayer thing. Jesus has that going on!”
Really it’s not so surprising that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, eternally in perfect communion with the Father, prioritized prayer. Jesus responded to the disciples’ request by introducing what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4, see also the longer version recorded in Matthew 6:9–13).
Let’s camp today on the disciples’ request. They not only went to the right instructor, but they also went with the right intent. This was more than a plain “how-to” request; it was a “give-us-the-desire-to-pray” petition. After noting a pattern of prayer in Jesus’ life, they longed to see it replicated in their own lives. They saw Jesus slip out of the house to pray in the early morning while they rolled over for a little more sleep. They watched Jesus stop to thank His Father at various times, drawing attention to the bigger picture (see Jesus’ conversation with His Father outside Lazarus’s tomb, John 11:41–42).
Yes, they wanted direction from Jesus regarding prayer, but they also wanted motivation. Before He even gave them the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, He graciously encouraged them with the words, “When you pray.” Not “if you pray,” but “when you pray”—because Jesus knew the disciples would pray. Driven by circumstances or as a spiritual discipline, the disciples would be talking to the Father in prayer.
They needed that expectation as much as we do. Our failure to pray rarely rises from lack of technique or subject matter. We often fail at prayer because we don’t keep at it. We try prayer but quickly give up. Yet prayer is the breathing of our spiritual life. Just as we can’t afford to stop pulling air into our lungs, so we also can’t survive spiritually without the healthy respirations of prayer.
When the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” that simple request was in and of itself a prayer. Make that your persistent prayer for a few days. Ask Him out loud. If a specific direction or thought doesn’t come to mind, then read and reflect on the Lord’s Prayer. Spin-off from certain lines of Jesus’ prayer, and expound with your own words. By giving us a model, Jesus wasn’t inviting rote repetition; He was offering a healthy pattern. Just as He taught His disciples to pray, so He is willing to teach us all things (John 14:26)—including how to pray.
This post originally appeared on Dr. James MacDonald’s daily devotional Our Journey and was republished with permission.
James MacDonald (D. Min. Phoenix Seminary) is the founding senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, leads the church-planting ministry of Harvest Bible Fellowship, teaches the practical application of God’s Word on the Walk in the Word radio and television programs, and is a gifted author and speaker. You can find out more about James and his ministries at WalkintheWord.org.