A penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will kill you. Not true. It may sting for a second or two, but it will absolutely not kill you. However, a piano falling all that way is a different story. The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. Again, not true. It may be long, but it is neither incredibly high nor wide. The fact is, there are days in Beijing when the pollution is so bad you can’t even see the Great Wall from across the street! It takes a person seven to ten years to digest gum that is swallowed. If you buy that, you will swallow anything because this also is not true. We talk about words going in one ear and out the other; it is the same principle here. But in this case, that other ear … is further south. Since we are talking about ears, Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his own ear for the love of some woman. Not true. The French artist Paul Gauguin, armed with a fencing sword, took off a slice of van Gogh’s ear in a bar fight (probably over a woman, so this rumor has some truth to it). To save Gauguin from being arrested, van Gogh said he cut off his own ear. I guess he just wouldn’t hear of Gauguin being jailed. [insert groan here!] Here’s one more. What do you think? True or false: God loves long prayers more than short prayers. Not true. Not true at all.
Now granted, that sounds wrong. It may even sound slightly heretical, but God loves short prayers. Now, I know you won’t believe me, so here are a few quotes from spiritual giants about the power of short prayers.
- Martin Luther: “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus: “Short prayers pierce heaven.”
- Philip Neri: “Those who are unable to spend a long time together in prayer, should often lift up their mind to God by short prayers.”
- Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you said was, ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
Now, if these four quotes did not convince you, then prepare to be won over. In Matthew 6 (7-8), Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
See, it’s true. Short prayers do pierce heaven. For further proof, try out these four short prayers and see what you think (I personally pray all of them often and find them to unleash all sorts of power):
- “Dear Jesus, do something” (Vladimir Nabokov).
- “Lord, to the degree I don’t want to do this, bless me.” (Luci Swindoll).
- “God, please help me not to be a jerk.” (Nadia Bolz-Weber, cleaned up just a bit).
- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Now, that is not to say that all short prayers are automatically great. Hardly. But short prayers that come from the heart and from the head, that are, in other words, sincere and deeply thoughtful, have a certain power to them. Now, you may be thinking, this is good news: when in prayer, get in, get out and get on to other things! But allow me to remind you of what Winston Churchill said: “If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.” Apply that to prayer. If you have the time to ramble, you can pray at the drop of a hat; but if you are going to pray a brief prayer that is packed with impact, you are going to need time to prepare. And that is today’s question: how do you compose a short prayer that is loaded with meaning and purpose? (Again, I am relying heavily on Scot McKnight’s book on prayer, To You All Hearts are Open. My advice, eliminate the middle man here; skip reading this blog and just read his book!). There are five steps to praying great short prayers.
Step One: Begin with your request. Before you start to pray, clearly identify exactly what you want God to do. When composing a prayer, always start with what you are asking God to do. Now, don’t be shy here. Be bold. Be specific. Be direct. Be honest and be mindful of God’s will. Short prayers don’t have time to be greedy, selfish, manipulative, or materialistic. I can do no better than to quote Michael Frost here with his blistering comments on praying the “prayer of Jabez”:
“The recent history of the church is strewn with examples of inauthenticity. Take, for example, the recent craze for praying the obscure prayer of Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4:10. Taken completely out of context, exegeted to within an inch of its life, and promoted as a ‘key’ to unlocking God’s blessing in one’s life, the prayer of Jabez became the latest artificial mechanism for short-circuiting the genuine ongoing work of communion with God (‘I can’t believe it’s not prayer!’). Though we have Jesus’ own template for prayer, which includes doing God’s will and seeing the kingdom come, we seem to prefer the shorter, more to the point request for blessings or ‘enlarged borders’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). For some reason, we think that God can’t see our greedy hearts or lazy attitudes, but is marshalled into action by a magic prayer.”
Yikes! By the way, I used to work for the guy who created the whole “Prayer of Jabez” thing (excuse me—I needed to pause and pray Nadia Bolz-Weber’s prayer—I’m good now. We can move on.).
When we are composing a prayer, we must always begin with our request, but that request must not be begging God for Scrooge McDuck riches or Jeff Bezos’ toys. Instead, we need to be mindful of God’s will and what is right and good and holy. Then, and only then, we need to be specific and concise and bold.
Step Two: Having identified our request, we must now answer the question: why should God answer this request? This means we need to think through our theology and our Bibles to see how God has worked in the past. Suppose our request is for God to heal a friend of ours. As we think through the Bible, what passages come to mind about God’s healing grace? Maybe Exodus 15:26 may come to mind where God says, “for I am the Lord, who heals you.” Or how about Job 5:18, “For God wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” Or we might consider Psalm 6:2 where the psalmist calls out for God’s intervention just because he knows God cares about him: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.” Or maybe we will think of all the healing miracles Jesus performed in the gospels or the apostles performed in Jesus’ name in Acts. I was done listing verses, but then James 5:16 came to mind: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Now, this step takes time and some serious thought, but this is the very heart of our prayer. How so? Because it moves the prayer away from our selfish concerns and reminds God, on the basis of who he is and what he has done in the past, why answering this prayer would be consistent with his character and will. This is another way we say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Consider these prayers with “attempts” at seeking God’s will:
- God, give me a new Mercedes because, when everyone else was swimming, you put Noah on the best ark in the world (I don’t think so).
- Father, deliver me from trials and tribulations because you took the Israelites out of Egypt so they would never have to suffer again (not close to being the truth).
- God Almighty, make me rich because you gave Solomon wisdom, riches and honor; and I, knowing that pride is the worst sin, selflessly only desire the cash and not the other two (indeed, you are soooo deeply spiritual! Ha!)
Asking God to work in concert with his character in this way helps us throw out requests that are tainted with selfishness and greed and puts our requests in their proper perspective. Scot McKnight writes: “Asking God to be consistent with God’s own God-ness is hardly manipulative. It is, in fact, affirming God’s God-ness in God’s presence.”
There are three more steps, but we will save them for next week. But, for homework, think about how you would want to compose a prayer for someone who is sick. How would you word the request? How would you remind God about his character and his actions and answer the question, “why should God answer your prayer?”
You say this sounds so elementary, so basic or, worse, this sounds so academic that it bypasses the heart; but this is the way we learn to pray correctly. And it is elementary, but never forget what Thomas Merton said: “We do not want to be perceived as beginners [at prayer]. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!” Amen and amen.
Here’s the takeaway for today: short prayers do pierce heaven; pennies falling from the Empire State building don’t pierce anything.