Saturday, June 17, 2017

Can I Sit Down Yet?

Ever sat through an 18 minute prayer?

I have, and I promise you it is tough sledding. Anyone who says otherwise nodded off for ten minutes in the middle.

Is that an unspiritual attitude? I’m not trying to be mean. The prayer culprit almost surely thought he was doing a good thing. Perhaps he was trying to avoid a few minutes of awkward silence, or maybe he wanted to make sure every concern he thought was important to God got covered. Maybe he thinks a spiritual prayer is a long prayer, or maybe that’s just what he’s used to.

Maybe his dad prayed like that, and maybe inside he was screaming, “Can I sit down YET?”

The answer is actually a resounding, “Yes, please,” so let’s consider some things the Bible says about prayer.

Lengthy and Regular

At least once we are told the Lord spent an entire night in prayer to God. The early church continually devoted themselves to prayer. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul told the Thessalonians. The Lord told his disciples a parable to show that “at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart”. Paul taught couples that the only legitimate reason to suspend the sexual aspect of the marital relationship was “so that you may devote yourselves to prayer”. The importance of praying in certain situations is so great it even warrants temporarily back-burnering one’s sex life.

Obviously scripture teaches that we should pray regularly and sometimes even at great length when the circumstances warrant. But what do all these passages have in common?

While they all show the vital importance of prayer to the Christian life, not one of them justifies lengthy public prayer. Neither does any other passage I’m aware of.

The Grand Champion

I’m happy to discuss any particular instance of disagreement with that assertion, but I’d maintain it’s true.

In fact, the Bible’s grand champ in the public prayer marathon is Solomon, whose dedication prayer for the temple is found in 1 Kings 8. It is almost a full chapter, and reading it carefully and slowly in English out loud takes about ... five minutes.

The day that I can pray anything like Solomon, I’ll be happy to see if I can top that.

But that’s just by way of example. What does the Bible say about praying publicly?

Be Not Rash With Your Mouth

In Ecclesiastes 5, the grand champ warns about the spiritual danger of lengthy public prayers:
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.”
The Lord himself taught that in public prayer the mind must be engaged. We are not to pray rote prayers, or babble on. Sheer length is not the standard by which God judges the value of prayer.

The apostle Paul taught that in meetings of the church, all things (which surely includes public prayer) are to be done “decently and in order”. In 1 Corinthians 14 he details how each [gifted, male] member of the church could publicly participate and — much more importantly, since we are to “value others above ourselves” — give place to others to participate: “You can all prophesy one by one”. He says, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets”, meaning that one man is not to dominate the gatherings of believers.

Even if that man is well spoken and well intentioned.

The Test

I would maintain it is impossible to pray out loud for 18 minutes without: (a) making a factual error; (b) misspeaking in one way or another; (c) repeating yourself; (d) dominating a meeting of the church; or (e) discouraging others from participating. I defy you to try.

Or, on the other hand, please don’t.

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