Questions on Prayer

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Sometimes when I am struggling with something, I will say a prayer asking God to show me what I need to hear, and then I will open the Bible and see what it says on the pages I opened up to. Sometimes it seems to fit the situation and be encouraging, sometimes it doesn't seem to fit, and sometimes it is discouraging. Is it okay to do this? And am I just missing God's point when I don't see how it fits my situation?

Sometimes people do not know where to start reading in the Bible, so they do what you describe. They say, “Lord, show me where you want me to read” and randomly open their Bible and start reading wherever the Bible happens to open. This has long been known as the “lucky dip” method. The Lord could give blessing in this way, but we have no promise (or Bible example) that he will. In general it is not the best way to read his Word.

To show some of the dangers in the “lucky dip” method, consider the following illustration that has been around for generations: The story is told of a man who used this method. The first verse he happened to turn to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas “went away and hanged himself.” Since he was not sure how this verse applied to himself, he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: “Jesus told him, Go, and do likewise.” The man was quite upset and he did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell upon John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.” Each of the verses are taken out of their context and end up giving messages that are not helpful or suitable.

Here are a few encouragements that have been around a long time. They point to a better and richer way to use the Bible.

  • Read systematically. When we read a book, a story, a letter or an essay, we generally start at the beginning and read through until we get to the end. This is how the writer wrote it, and this is the best way to read it. The same should be true with the books of the Bible. The best way to read is to start at the beginning of a book and continue until you get to the end. When Paul wrote the book of Romans, he did not write chapter 13 first and then chapter 8. He began with chapter 1 and then wrote chapter 2, etc. Shouldn’t we read it this way to enjoy his message?
  • Read carefully. Pay close attention to each word. Be careful not to let your mind start to daydream. (To check this you can always ask yourself: What did I just read?)
  • Read inquisitively. As you read the Bible, be asking questions such as these: Who is the author or speaker? To whom is the passage written or who is the speaker addressing? What are the main ideas? Other key questions that will help to bring out the meaning of the passage as are follows: Is there any command to obey? Is there any promise to believe? Is there a good example to follow? Is there any sin to avoid? Do I learn anything about God? Do I learn anything about humans—me? Is there anything I can thank God for?
  • Read lovingly. Think of a young woman in love with her fiancé who is separated from her by many miles. How do you suppose she would read his love letters? As soon as the letter arrives in the mail she would open it and read it all the way through with great interest. Then she would likely read it again, this time slowly. She would think about every word. She would lovingly meditate upon every phrase and think to herself, “I wonder why he said this?” Even after she finishes reading the letter she would remember much of what was contained in the letter and she would continue thinking about it throughout the day. Read the Bible in that way! The Bible is God’s love letter to us.
  • Read prayerfully. Trust the Holy Spirit to teach you. Make it a habit to pray before you read. Psalm 119:18 is a good example of such a prayer. It is the Lord that gives understanding (2 Timothy 2:7). In this way the reading of God’s Word may serve as a constant source of joy and wisdom to your heart!

If God is going to do His will according to the plan He has for you, what's the point of praying?

We pray because God invites and directs us to pray to him (Matthew 7:7; Luke 18:1; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).  We pray because God promises that he will hear and answer our prayers (Psalm 50:15; 91:15; John 15:7).  We pray because God tells us that prayer is “powerful and effective” (James 5:16).  That same section of James illustrates how God acted on Elijah’s prayers.  We have many reasons to pray to our God.

Your question addresses the kinds of prayers that we call “petitions,” prayers in which we make requests of God.  You know that we utilize prayer for other reasons though.  We pray to God to give thanks to him.  We pray to God to communicate, among other things, our thoughts, our fears, and our concerns.  Prayer is finally communication with God.  As we communicate with other people daily on a variety of issues and subjects, so we have opportunity to converse with God about the issues of life—and to do that daily.

We may not understand all the mysteries of God’s will, but this part of his will we do know:  he wants us to employ the privilege of prayer.  God speaks to us through his Word, and through prayer he makes it possible for us to speak to him.  He wants us to pray, and he delights in our prayers.  “The prayer of the upright pleases him [God]” (Proverbs 15:8).

Hello! Is it OK that I do the sign of the cross before and after I pray? Also, may I ask why do we say, "In your Son's name" or "In Jesus' name," etc.? Thanks!

Martin Luther would be happy with your practice of the sign of the cross.  In his Small Catechism (in the Concordia Triglotta) he included this preface to the Morning Prayer:  “In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:  In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.  Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer” [which we know as Luther’s Morning Prayer].

Similar wording precedes his Evening Prayer:  “In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:  In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.  Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer” [which we know as Luther’s Evening Prayer].

Making the sign of the cross—in the morning, in the evening, before and after prayers—is purely optional for Christians.  God does not command nor forbid it.  (We call that an adiaphoron).  If that practice is beneficial for you in that it reminds you that you are a redeemed child of God, maintain it.  Of course, ask yourself the reason why you have that practice.

As far as praying “in Jesus’ name,” we use those words in our prayers, or we pray with that attitude without using those specific words, because we recognize that it is only through Jesus that we can approach our God in prayer (John 1:12; 14:6; 16:23; Galatians 3:26-27; Ephesians 3:12).

I grew up in a WELS church that had a church bell that they rang every Sunday at the beginning of the service, then they tolled the bell 3 times during the Lord's Prayer. Could you tell me the meaning behind the Lord's Prayer toll?

I grew up with a similar experience.  Medieval monks are credited with the custom of ringing a bell three times during the Lord’s Prayer.  The idea was to alert people in the area surrounding the monastery or church that the Lord’s Prayer was being spoken in those buildings and they could join in from a distance.  The bell peal at the beginning, middle and end of the Lord’s Prayer helped those distant prayers keep pace with those who were praying the prayer inside the buildings.

Today that custom of ringing the church bell three times during the Lord’s Prayer has largely lost its practical function in our society, but it still adds beauty and dignity to our worship.  And, like the ringing of the bell at the start of the worship service, it is a reminder to the church’s community that corporate worship is taking place.  One of our hymns puts it this way:  “Bells still are chiming and calling, Calling the young and old to rest” (CW 529:1).  Jesus wants to give the weary rest for their souls (Matthew 11:28), and so we invite sinners to find rest for their souls through the gospel—even inviting them by the ringing of church bells.

Why don't we ask Mary (the mother of Jesus) and dead Saints to pray for us as well as praying to Jesus? Is there somewhere in the Bible that says we shouldn't or that somehow Jesus' mother is not an important person?

The fact that a person is important has nothing to do with whether we are to pray to that one. People living on earth can do things to help us, but only God can answer prayer. The first commandment forbids us to worship and pray to anyone except God. To pray to any person as we pray to God is idolatry.

The dead in heaven cannot hear us. They are removed from the earth, so it does no good to pray to them. Also, there is no need to pray to them. We can pray directly to God as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer. When we can pray to God himself, why would we want to pray to a man or woman?

Jesus is God. The dead saints are just that—dead saints. Why would we pray to dead saints (even those in heaven) when we can pray to the living God who invites our prayer and promises to hear us (Psalm 50:15)?

I have two loved ones who are battling cancer, and I don't know how to pray for them. Do I ask for their healing even though it looks grim? I know God's will is already known to him . . . so do I ask for a miracle? How and what do I pray to our Lord for?

There is no doubt that the Lord is presenting you with some challenging situations. Knowing how to pray is not always an easy task. We want to accept God’s will and his providence over our lives and the lives of our loved ones. But we realize that he also invites us to pray.

We may wonder why God does this, especially if he knows what he is going to do anyway. Here we simply have to trust that our prayers do make a difference because God says they do. He tells us that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Hezekiah even gives us an example of how God altered his course of action because of the prayer of one of his people (Isaiah 38). Our prayers make a difference. They play a part in God’s governance of the world.

Let’s explore what God’s Word says about how we should pray. The Lord invites us to “call upon him” (Psalm 50:15) and to “cast all our anxiety on him” (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus adds, “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23). Although it may sound as though Jesus is giving us a blank check, we understand his words alongside of other sections of Scripture where God teaches us that we always pray with the attitude, “Not my will but yours be done” (Matthew 6:10; James 4:13-15). However, these passages do point out that we are to pray with confidence, knowing that we can ask for anything and that God will hear that prayer and consider our request. In Philippians 4:6 the apostle Paul states, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

You certainly have some matters that are weighing heavily on your heart and mind. God invites you to bring these matters to him in prayer. He also adds that you can ask for what may seem impossible recognizing that what may seem impossible to us is possible for God (Matthew 19:26).

Considering these passages, it is appropriate for you to pray for a miracle in the lives of your loved ones. You can pray that the Lord will heal them from their cancer. But as you pray for this miracle you accept the fact that God may not work a miracle in this case. This does not mean God did not hear your request. It does not mean that God did not answer your prayer. God always hears our prayers and answers them. But when he doesn’t give us what we want, he gives us something better. That is not always easy to understand in this life. We may not see how God is giving us something better by allowing a loved one to suffer through an illness and perhaps even die from that disease. Yet we have his promise that he will do what is best for us and our loved ones.

Is it okay to pray for a miraculous healing?

It is proper to pray for healing and to ask your pastor or a fellow Christian to join you in such prayers. Nowhere has Scripture declared that divine healings have ceased, nor has Scripture anywhere advised that we should not include such matters in our prayers.

It is wise, however, to have realistic expectations. Not all the sick and dying were healed when our Lord served among people, and not everyone was healed among the apostles or those they served. Paul was denied healing of a physical ailment he asked to be removed (2 Corinthians 12:8-10), Paul’s coworker Epaphroditus almost died and was not quickly healed (Philippians 2:25). Trophimus was not miraculously healed (2 Timothy 4:20), and Timothy was instructed to use medicinal remedies rather than being healed (1 Timothy 5:23). God has always been selective and has not given a guaranteed promise of miraculous healing to his dearly loved people. Since the time of the apostles, the phenomenon of miraculous healings has apparently substantially decreased in number. Perhaps this is because one of the purposes of miracles is no longer needed. Originally God provided them to substantiate the trustworthiness and truth of the Apostolic New Testament (Mark 16:20).

When you pray for healing, do so as a humble child of God and ask that God’s will be done—and tell him you pray that healing is indeed his will. Ask confidently, knowing that he is not only fully able to heal but also able to sustain you in illness and use sickness for your spiritual and eternal good as well as for his glory.

Hello! I was in a Faith/Spirtuality class. The instructor is Roman Catholic. She made a statement that she had recently learned that Lutherans do not pray for the dead and that she can't believe that we do not. How do we Lutherans know that they went to heaven. She needs all the prayers she can get both now and forever. She needs to be cleansed. She could not wrap her finger around our choice not to. Please explain so I have clarity. Thanks!

We do not pray for those who have died because in the case of Christians those prayers are unnecessary, and in regard to unbelievers those prayers are futile.

When death occurs, judgment also takes place (Luke 16:19-31; Hebrews 9:27).  When people die, their souls are immediately in heaven or hell.  There is no intermediate state.  There is no need to pray for anyone who is in heaven; theirs is a perfect existence in the presence of God.  It would do no good to pray for someone whom we believe to be in hell; God’s judgment is final and our prayers would not affect their condition.

Of course, if people misunderstand what the Bible says about salvation, they will likely misuse prayer in praying for those who have died.  If people think that they—in any way—contribute to their salvation, there will be doubt.  Questions and requests like these might then arise:  “Have I done enough?” “Can I do enough?”  “Do something for me after I die, like praying for me.”

How sad that is.  Scripture presents salvation as an accomplished fact and truth.  Jesus lived up to his name which means “Savior.”  He won our salvation.  He announced that on the cross when he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  Salvation is God’s doing (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7).  Because Jesus did everything necessary for our salvation, Christians can be absolutely sure that when death comes, they will be in heaven.  We have the Lord’s own word on that (Mark 16:16; John 3:16; 5:24).

Is it OK that I do the sign of the cross before and after I pray? Also, may I ask why do we say, "In your Son's name" or "In Jesus' name," etc.? Thanks!

Martin Luther would be happy with your practice of the sign of the cross.  In his Small Catechism (in the Concordia Triglotta) he included this preface to the Morning Prayer:  “In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:  In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.  Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer” [which we know as Luther’s Morning Prayer].

Similar wording precedes his Evening Prayer:  “In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:  In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.  Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer” [which we know as Luther’s Evening Prayer].

Making the sign of the cross—in the morning, in the evening, before and after prayers—is purely optional for Christians.  God does not command nor forbid it.  (We call that an adiaphoron).  If that practice is beneficial for you in that it reminds you that you are a redeemed child of God, maintain it.  Of course, ask yourself the reason why you have that practice.

As far as praying “in Jesus’ name,” we use those words in our prayers, or we pray with that attitude without using those specific words, because we recognize that it is only through Jesus that we can approach our God in prayer (John 1:12; 14:6; 16:23; Galatians 3:26-27; Ephesians 3:12).

I have heard people say, "I was praying in the spirit," and am wondering if this is something different than regular praying. How do you define "praying in the spirit"? Also, I have recently been approached by a friend who is suggesting that we should "pray in tongues." This is private prayer versus the public speaking in tongues and supposedly a deeper prayer language given by God. I don't get it and would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  That is the instruction we find in Ephesians 6:18.  It comes right after the directive to “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).  The Holy Spirit is vitally important in our faith.  The only access to God the Father is through faith in Jesus his Son (John 14:6), but no one is able to confess faith in Jesus without the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart (1 Corinthians 12:3).  To “pray in the Spirit” is to pray to God in the faith the Holy Spirit has created in the heart.

Some churches and individuals believe that praying “in the Spirit” is done by praying “in tongues.”  By “tongues” they usually mean language that is unintelligible to others and, perhaps, even them.  While God of course can do anything, there is nothing in Scripture that tells us to expect the gift of immediately speaking in known, intelligible languages as in Acts 2.  Nor does Scripture speak of our need to communicate with God in syllables that are mysterious to others and us.

Prayer is a wonderful gift from God.  It enables us to communicate with him.  How much more wonderful is the communication between God and us!  God communicates to us through his word; he comes to us in word and sacrament.  It is through his gospel—his communication to us—that God deepens our faith.

How does the WELS promote active participation in prayer? Much of our service is so scripted (all for good reason I know) and so are additional prayers for before and after Communion, baptism, opening/ close of day, or before dinner. I think back to my WELS grade school days - our devotions and our Christ-Light book prayers were scripted as well. It is one thing to have prayer examples so that something important in our prayers to God aren't missed, but I'll speak for myself, and likely others, that it is so repeated that sometimes I fail to focus, to listen, and truly pray from the heart. I can't help but see a disconnect. My point is that the WELS is near and dear to my heart, and has given me a heart for Jesus, but I believe that we aren't taught to actively pray to the Lord. I don't understand why other denominations or non-denominational individuals feel so free to pray off the cuff. Are there any initiatives on this? If not, I'm strongly interested in hearing your comments. Thank you!

My response will address “prepared prayers” in worship services and the teaching of prayer in general.  I hope that is adequate.

You already acknowledge good reason for “scripting” parts of our worship service.  In Christian freedom our pastors—in worship services—can offer prayers that they or others have written ahead of time, or they can speak prayers that are not written out.  While many pastors offer ex corde prayers in settings such as meetings, Bible classes, visits to hospitals, nursing homes and private residences, they often prepare prayers as part of their general worship service preparation.  Such prayer preparation can offer the same advantage as writing out the sermon:  the pastor will be able to choose his words ahead of time, and there is less likelihood of using the same words and phrases.  In addition, this preparation can reduce and eliminate the worshipers’ uncomfortableness and sense of awkwardness when the person praying is trying to find the right words.

On the other hand, there are pastors who can offer ex corde prayers week after week in worship services with freshness and variety, and with ease.  For them, printed prayers are a luxury more than a necessity for their role as worship leader.

I have used the terminology ex corde without explaining it for others who may read your question and this response.  Ex corde refers to praying “from the heart,” when there is no printed prayer in front of a person.  Obviously I have no problem with that definition.  What can concern me is when people think an ex corde prayer is more spiritual—or better—than a prayer that has been written out—by the person praying or by someone else.  That is when I like to say this:  even when I use a prayer that someone else wrote, that is as much of a prayer “from the heart” as the prayers that are called “ex corde.”  And, incidentally, using prayers written by others will often take me out of my own little world and lead me to pray for other people and for other things.

Regarding the teaching of prayer in WELS, I can only comment on what I see and hear.  When I go through the book of James with college students, I ask them what others have taught them about prayer:  how to have a balanced prayer life in offering “prayers, petitions, intercession, and thanksgiving…for all people (2 Timothy 2:1).  I regularly hear acronyms and memory hooks that can guide them in their prayer life.

Could we do better in our teaching and modeling of Christian prayer?  Certainly.  We can do better and grow in all aspects of our Christian life.

What we want to keep teaching is that prayer is the privilege God has given us whereby we can speak to him; prayer is a conversation we have with God.  He speaks to us through the word, and we speak to him in prayer.   Because of God’s invitation to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers, we can come boldly to him with our “prayers, petitions, intercession, and thanksgiving.”

I often read in Christian publications and in our own WELS literature the phrase "for Jesus' sake." This often appears at the end of written prayers and in the prayers said at the altar in my home church. I really bristle at this. For Jesus' sake? Really? He is holy and gave us eternal life through His holy blood. Jesus doesn't need us to pray for him. It is we poor sinners who need prayers of intercession. As a life-long WELS member, I finally have to ask, what does this phrase mean, as I obviously am missing the meaning?

Your question illustrates how words can have multiple meanings.  “Sake” can mean “for the benefit of” or “on account of.”

The expression “for Jesus’ sake” at the end of prayers does not intend to say that we are praying for (“for the benefit of”) Jesus.  “For Jesus’ sake” means that we are coming to God in prayer, not pleading our own merits, but (“on account of”) Jesus’ merits.

Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  When we end our prayers with “for Jesus’ sake,” we are acknowledging that Jesus is the one who has bridged the gap between a holy God and sinners.  “For Jesus’ sake” has the idea of asking that our prayers be heard and answered, not because of who we are but because of who Jesus is.  And of course whether or not we use that expression, that thought is foundational to all our prayers.

So, keep presenting your “requests, prayers and intercession” (1 Timothy 2:1) to God.  God will hear and answer your prayers for Jesus’ sake, because he has “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18).

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