I quickly scanned the waiting area at the gate to see who else might be boarding the plane and noticed an Orthodox man across the room. This would have been a common sight in New York City, yet in San Francisco it was unusual, even exotic.
How strange—it just might be that the Lord arranged for us to sit together for the next five and a half hours,” I thought. But soon I was occupied with saying my goodbyes, and when I looked for the Orthodox man again, he was gone.
I found my aisle seat, stashed my coat in the overhead bin and my books and some broadsides beneath the seat in front of me. Just as I had settled in comfortably, my seat belt securely fastened, I looked up to see the same bearded man asking if he might pass through to his seat!
Did I happen to mention all this happened many years ago, when I was a new believer?
I was so excited that God had dropped this opportunity almost into my lap! I considered informing the man that the Lord had arranged for us to sit together, but even as a young believer, I realized this might sound weird and could possibly prevent him from listening to the rest of what I had to say.
He shook my hand and introduced himself as Rabbi Pinchas Lipner. I told him my name and as the stewardess began demonstrating the airline safety procedures, I settled back and began praying for a safe flight…and, of course, for an opportunity to speak to the rabbi about Jesus. He pulled out his siddur and was apparently praying for a safe flight too, and who knows, maybe for a chance to talk to me about becoming more involved in a synagogue.
Once we were airborne, Rabbi Lipner turned to me and said, “So, Mitch, were you on vacation in San Francisco?” I seized the opportunity to tell him, “Yes, I was on vacation with all of my friends from Jews for Jesus. Have you heard of us?”
He flashed a big smile and said, “Certainly! ” He then went on to tell me a little about his line of work. Attempting to help things along, I said, “Rabbi, I’m sure this will be a safe flight since the first thing we both did was pray! You prayed from a prayer book and I prayed from my heart.”
I did not mean to offend the rabbi, but as a young believer I had presumed (wrongly, I hasten to add) that liturgical prayers were rather empty. While growing up the only praying I ever did was from a prescribed set of prayers, and without a relationship with God, they were empty. The church and Bible school I attended as a young believer did not emphasize liturgy as a way of worship, so I figured that prewritten prayers were for people who prayed only out of a sense of religious duty.
Rabbi Lipner took this opportunity to teach me something about prayer. He said, “Mitch, the fact that I pray from a book does not mean I do not pray from my heart.”
“But how can the words of other people who lived hundreds of years ago express what you feel today?” I protested. “Doesn’t God want us to have a personal relationship with him?” Rabbi Lipner looked me straight in the eye, and told me with a smile something I never forgot.
He said, “Mitch, how can you or I, or even the greatest rabbis of our day improve on the beauty of the prayers of our sages?”
For a brief moment he made perfect sense, and I felt a little ashamed to think I had preferred my own words—which even I could recognize as not being terribly profound—to the prayers of the professionals.
After I thought about what he said, I turned to Rabbi Lipner and replied, “What you say sounds good, Rabbi, but I still think God wants me to talk to him in my own words, even if they are not as eloquent as those of our sages.”
He did not argue, but he did have that “When you get to be my age you’ll understand” look in his eyes.
Prayer and the Jewish Believer
That experience was one of my first and most profound lessons about prayer. Quite honestly, I have come to understand the great value of liturgy and thoughtfully composed prayers, particularly for corporate worship. When we speak to God before and on behalf of a congregation, our use of language is important insofar as it communicates the mind and heart of the group. It is appropriate to carefully prepare what to say in such situations.
Public prayer is an opportunity to express our Jewish identity. There are many wonderful, appropriate prayers for us in the siddur, such as the Shema, the Aleinu or the Kaddish (which is usually thought of as a prayer for the dead, but is actually a prayer that sanctifies life).
Yet when it comes to praying in solitude, I still believe what I said to Rabbi Lipner: God wants to hear my mumbles and murmurs. He patiently bears with me as I stumble over sentences because he wants to hear what I sometimes struggle to tell him, rather than hearing me recite the more erudite words of others.
Our prayers might take the form of stuttered statements interspersed with groans and cries and sometimes dead silence. Contrary to what the rabbi said, at times the deepest and most noble form of prayer is neither heard nor repeated. It is a thundering flash of silence which resounds with groans and utterances of the Holy Spirit who prays through us, for us, and with us when we are incapable of praying. “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Silent or not, spontaneous prayer is a startling new experience for most messianic believers. Whether we come from religious or non-practicing homes, most of us are staggered to discover the great privilege of prayer available to us through Yeshua.
We may have been searching for meaning, truth, the relief of guilt, or some other need, but when we found the truth of Yeshua we found a God who was waiting to talk with us. What experience in the universe can compare to communicating with the eternal I AM?
Prayer is a wonder, a privilege, a joy—and yet at times it is also a heartache. As happy as we are about the opportunity to pray, it is not long before most of us begin to experience difficulty in seizing that opportunity. Some (not all!) of the problems that arise in developing a prayer life are due to our background as messianic believers.
My conversation with Rabbi Lipner helped identify a pair of problems Jewish believers in Jesus might have with prayer.
First, personal and spontaneous prayer is almost always totally new to Jewish believers. Often, we simply do not know what to say to the Lord. It is hard to believe that we may speak to him anywhere, at any time, when we are accustomed to prayer as a religious practice to be exercised only at certain times.
Second, prayer is a habit. Perhaps you have noticed that bad habits are easy to make and hard to break, while the opposite is true of good habits. This is particularly so for adults. Without the character building forces of parental guidance or school, we tend to treat our personalities as finished products. We need to yield to the Lord’s instruction to be teachable and pliable: “as little children.”
Other substantial difficulties that Jewish believers may have with prayer include the fact that we did not have the Christian role models some of our Gentile brothers and sisters had. Whereas they became accustomed to coming to the Lord with the great and small details of their lives, few of us overheard our parents expressing anything of a personal nature to God.
“God is not alone when discarded by man. But man is alone. To avoid prayer constantly is to force a gap between man and God which can widen into an abyss. But sometimes, awakening on the edge of despair to weep, and arising from forgetfulness, we feel how yearning moves in softly to become the lord of a restless breast, and we pass over the gap with the lightness of a dream.”1
The role models we did have prayed in Hebrew if they could. Did you think that Rabbi Lipner was reading an English siddur? The great words of the sages he referred to as being unparalleled were Hebrew words…not English! To pray in contemporary language is considered by many as a sign of spiritual deficiency.
Yet, why would an omniscient God care about which language we use? Certainly he understands English, Russian and even the most remote of tribal tongues!
It is certainly not wrong to learn Hebrew, and as a matter of culture and heritage, I would like my children to know this cherished language. But I imagine that many Jews mistakenly feel as though they must become linguists in order to have a relationship with the living God!
Praying in a foreign language does give prayer a certain formality and mystique. Perhaps we lose some of the awesomeness of prayer when we pray in English. On the other hand, it is a great advantage to know what we are saying!
Now before you think that I should stop kvetching and just join a Reform Synagogue, it should be noted that the Reform movement, while rejecting some of the ancient trappings of Judaism, also tends to reject the notion of a personal God! We may applaud the Reform attempts at bringing God back to the lay person, but the god being brought back is not God at all. It is a god created in the image of men and women, and just as fallible, impotent, and imperfect. That god is not worthy of worship, and in fact, praying to the god of the Reform movement is tantamount to talking to yourself!
On the other side of the coin, some Jewish believers find it even more difficult to pray with Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ, whose terminology is sometimes as removed from us culturally as the Hebrew language is linguistically. How many of you began your new life believing it was imperative to start each prayer with a password such as “Our dear gracious heavenly Father we come unto thee in prayer” and close each prayer with a similar password such as “for we ask these things in the strong name of thy dear son our precious Lord and Savior…”
This doesn’t excuse Jewish believers from prayer, but it may help to explain some of the difficulties that we are likely to have.
Yet cultural hindrances are minor compared to the deeper causes of prayerlessness, which have nothing to do with our Jewishness. The many books written about prayer are evidence that prayerlessness and knowing how to pray properly are challenges for all who love the Lord.
How Should We Pray?
The petition “Lord…teach us to pray” has already been stated and granted! Jesus did not rebuke his disciples for asking him how to pray. His response tells us there are basic principles we need to remember.
Yeshua did not provide his disciples with a set of prescribed, proscribed, and inscribed prayers, but with one perfect model for praying. Some might mistakenly say that the “Lord’s Prayer” was the same as other Jewish prayers of Jesus’ day. Indeed the “Lord’s Prayer” is a very Jewish prayer. (How odd that many Jewish believers today feel uncomfortable using it because it seems so ‘goyish’!) But it is so much more than the petition and praise prose composed by his contemporaries. It is an outline of prayer directions ever expandable, yet utterly comprehensive in brevity.
The prayer begins with an acknowledgement of our relationship to God, “Our Father.” We are reminded of his sovereign, transcendent nature. “Who art in heaven,” and “Hallowed be Thy name” state his holy character. Yeshua juxtaposes kingdom hopes with requests for daily sustenance, as prayer must always help us to maintain proper priorities. The request for forgiveness presumes repentance and a willingness to forgive others, as well as the petitioner’s renewed desire to be conformed to the image of the Holy God. The Savior invites his disciples to depend upon God’s enabling power to resist the tempter, and finally encourages them to praise the Lord’s omnipotent and eternal character.
Two thousand years of commentators have attempted to plumb the depths of this prayer and still the mine is deeply layered with undiscovered gold. Jewish believers would do well to take special note of this prayer, as it will help us to know what to say when we forge ahead into the presence of the Holy One of Israel.
Beyond “Lord, teach me to pray” our request should be, “Lord, teach me to want to pray.” And the question many of us need to ask is, “Lord, what is it in my life that is keeping me from praying more?” For one of the most common shortcomings believers confess is that we do not pray enough.
One excuse is that there is not enough time to pray. Whereas we would never accept this excuse from others, all too often we accept it for ourselves. Maybe we do not have a whole hour of quiet to be alone with God on our present schedule. But what about getting up a little earlier, or foregoing the indulgence of recreation until we firm up a pattern of prayer?
We could find creative ways of getting alone with God if that were our greatest desire. The problem is, our desire is often inhibited, and rather than admit this, we cover up with excuses and settle for much less time with God than we should. Avoiding prayer is the same as avoiding God! Why would we do such a thing?
The Fear of Intimacy With God
This fear is probably the primary squelcher of our desire to spend more time in prayer and, in fact, is typical of most relationships in our day. We hurry through our lives giving here and there to those who will not come close enough to demand too much of us. By contrast, prayer demands much of us because God demands much of us, as prayer not only puts us in a position to speak to God, but it also puts us in a position to hear from God!
Sometimes we fear an encounter with God because of unconfessed sin which we know we cannot justify in his holy presence. We need to remind ourselves of God’s grace and forgiveness and the joy we experience as we commune with our Heavenly Father. He will not only forgive us, but when we come to him he will also sensitize and help us want to turn from our sin. In the presence of a Holy God, we view sin differently. His radiance shows the sins to which we are so easily attracted for what they are small and ugly substitutes for the good things God desires for his children.
We must remember that the scrutiny of God’s Spirit is always tempered by his grace. Prayer is the result of faith whereby we reach out for his forgiveness and grace. So,
“…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Unconfessed sin is not all that can keep us from approaching the King of the Universe. Perhaps there is a hope or a fear which we have been unwilling to relinquish to his sovereignty. In that case, we need to ask ourselves, will the One to whom we have entrusted our eternal destiny let us down if we also entrust our temporal hopes and fears to him?
The other common cause for avoiding closeness to God is the suspicion that he will ask us to do something that we wish to avoid.
That is exactly when we should pray. For when we approach his presence, we see not only sinful habits, but also selfish inclinations to jealously guard our time, our resources, and our position in this life for what they are. If we would only spend more time listening to God we would be surprised and delighted to find his Spirit within us answering “Yes and Amen!” to whatever he may ask us to do or give.
The Lack of Apparent Results
Some are discouraged from praying when God does not immediately grant our requests…especially when the requests are as close to our hearts as the salvation of those we love. Probably no single area of prayer concerns us more. So it is not unusual to become discouraged if our family and friends do not respond to the gospel. I’ve sometimes despaired when praying for the salvation of my family. Have you’?
Prayer is a mystery, as is the work of evangelism. After all, God does not need our help to tell others about Yeshua any more than he needs our petitions to decide how to run the universe!
Do you think that we can change the mind of God about the salvation of loved ones because of the fervency of our prayers? Should we expect God to override their free will? God is the author of choice. Prayer is not our means of invading the personal domain of a fellow human being. Then why should we pray for the salvation of nonbelievers—especially our families—or witness to them, for that matter?
Faith comes to unbelievers through hearing the word of God, and they hear it through us, his heralds. And so we witness because we are privileged to be instruments of his will…but we do not fully understand how, it all comes together. And the God who ordains that we witness is the same God who calls upon us to pray for all.
Yes, it is a mystery how our prayers can actually change things, when we know that God’s character and his plans are unchanging. Yet the Bible tells us to pray and to witness. God delights in our involvement in his work. Therefore, to resist the invitation to pray, or to lose hope in the reality of prayer, is to tell God that we are unwilling to join him as co-laborers in the work of the kingdom.
We cannot lose hope that God will save our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, spouses and, yes, even our elderly grandparents who seem so close to entering eternity without the Messiah. If we pray, we will be able to hope. And if we hope, we will be able to act. Perhaps herein lies one of the main reasons why we must pray.
Can we witness without praying or pray without witnessing’? It is impossible! Moishe Rosen has often said, “If you cannot talk to a person about the Lord, you can always talk to the Lord about that person.” This is profoundly true.
How often we find that when we show enough concern to pray about a matter, God blesses that concern by giving us the conviction, the courage, and the circumstances to act on it.
Have you lost hope for the salvation of your loved ones because of an apparent lack of prayer results? Remember that praying is an act of faith and faith is what? (See Hebrews 11: 1) We can persevere in prayer with renewed faith when we acknowledge that prayer, like evangelism, is a mystery of grace.
We pray because God desires partnership with his people, because God wills that none should perish, because prayer is his means of performing his will and fulfilling his promises. We must especially pray and keep praying for our unsaved families, and when we are too weak to pray we should ask others to pray for our families…because prayers are one way through which God works in the lives of people.
Mishpochah, what is it that keeps us from prayer? Let us take our troubles to the Lord and see if they do not fade to insignificance in his presence. The best cure for prayerlessness is to pray!
I am grateful to Rabbi Lipner for helping me discover some of the reasons why I find it difficult to pray. There is no use denying the disparity between the traditional Jewish view of prayer and what you and I understand as our privilege and duty as New Covenant believers.
Prayer, through crucial, is not an end in itself. It is one element of our relationship with God. It would be wrong to focus on the discipline of prayer without considering the totality of our relationship with God. The desire for an improved prayer life will go hand in hand with a desire to draw closer to God through service, obedience and exercising faith. But if you don’t quite have it in your heart to desire all those things, prayer is a good place to begin; for prayer, when it is a regular part of our life, truly changes us. Brothers and sisters, you cannot daily come before him for any length of time without being changed!
In addition to priming us for action, sensitizing us to sin, and preventing us from holding grudges, prayer changes us in the following ways:
Prayer humbles us, infusing us with that most necessary, yet elusive quality. After being in the presence of Almighty God, it is impossible to be anything but humble! When we are humble, we are not likely to gloat or indulge in petty gossip over someone else’s sins. When self-righteousness melts away, the sight of sin makes us wince, and we will earnestly pray for that brother or sister. We will care more than we have ever cared for their spiritual well-being, and in a way that is not judgmental. Imagine how different things could be if we all prayed more!
Prayer helps us to trust. Though we may not be able to articulate why or how, time spent in the presence of God enables us to know he is as good as we have dared to believe. Thus, we experience the “peace that passes understanding.”
Prayer makes us less fearful of death. Time spent in the presence of the Lord is like an appetizer. It makes us hungry for the keeping of his promise that we will one day be with him.
Nothing is as central to the vitality of our movement, nothing touches the very core of our souls, nothing will shape us and, therefore, shape the future of our movement as much as prayer.
May our movement become known as a movement of prayer—not because of what we say or write, but because of our transformed lives reflecting the inner beauty of the Lord’s person, cultivated in his presence through prayer.
Lord teach us…we are willing…we are ready to pray!
- Man’s Quest For God by Abraham J. Heschel, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1954, from pages 5 and 11.
Are faithful prayers always answered? Why pray to a God who lets people hurt? Does prayer change God’s mind? What can l tell an all-knowing God? How can I be intimate with an invisible God? For warm, insightful answers to these and other questions, read The God Who Hears, by Dr. W. Bingham Hunter, published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.