Bargaining with the Gods

Boy praying

Why a sermon on prayer?

At the end of Bible study on Wednesday I asked what folks might like to hear a sermon on…and Winslow suggested prayer since it is the theme of this month.

“But prayer is one of my greatest shortcomings!” I protested.

“All the more reason to do a sermon on prayer,” everyone countered.

Perhaps not the exact wording…but that really is the genesis of this talk.

Anybody else here feel the pang of guilt every time they hear of how some pillar of the faith spent hours a day praying, got up early every morning to spend time with God, etcetera?  [ Wait for answers. ]

Then this sermon is for us…for those who know their prayer life isn’t what it should be.

Now…I really, really don’t feel competent to talk about prayer because I am so lousy at its practice…luckily God hasn’t called me up here to preach my own wisdom, but instead His from the Bible–and the Bible has plenty to say about prayer!


Pagan prayer

Before we turn to Scripture to learn God’s guidance on prayer, let’s talk about how those in other religions pray.  In his book, “Every Prayer in the Bible,” Larry Richards had a section, “Prayer and Our View of God,” in which he summarized three major historic views of prayer:

  • Prayer in Roman religion: a legal transaction
  • Prayer in Sumerian religion: bargaining with the gods
  • Prayer in Egyptian religion: manipulation of the gods

He summarized those three in a section he titled, “The Impact of the Concept of God in Pagan Religions”:

The above descriptions of the prayers of pagans are not exhaustive. The literature of each culture mentioned contains poems praising the gods that the people worshiped. Yet the prayers quoted above reveal much about the basic assumptions of the Romans, the Sumerians and other Mesopotamian peoples, and the Egyptians concerning the nature of their gods and humankind’s relationship with them.

The Romans maintained a respectful attitude toward their gods, yet they assumed that something like a legal contract could be negotiated with them. By presenting something of value to the gods, the Romans expected the gods to behave appropriately, returning an equivalent benefit. The gods and human beings were viewed as parties who entered into formal contracts to the benefit of each.

The Sumerians and other Mesopotamian peoples assumed that the gods were in some sense dependent on human beings. The gods fed on the sacrifices offered by humankind, and they were pleased by gifts such as the gold cup which Zimri-Lim offered to Ida, the river god.

While the Romans tended to assume a quasi-legal mutual obligation might exist between men and the gods, the Mesopotamian peoples hoped that by appeasing their gods the gods might favor them. The fact that the gods wanted what human beings could provide offered some prospect of bargaining successfully, although the gods of the ancient Near East were capricious and could not be counted on.

The attitude of the Egyptians, as expressed in their prayer-spells, was far more cynical. The gods were real, but they could be manipulated by magic. In some sense, human beings could gain power over the gods and force them to do man’s will. Even access to heaven depended on having at hand the right magic spells by which to pass various tests imposed by the guardian deities of the otherworld.

While manipulation of the gods by means of magic spells was also an element in most other pagan religions, this approach to prayer was most fully expressed in Egyptian religion.

[ Richards, L. (1998). Every prayer in the Bible (12–13). Nashville: T. Nelson. ]

What do you prayers say about your picture of God?  Are you trying to legally obligate God to answer?  Are you bargaining with Him?  Do you think if you just choose the right combination of words you’ll get your way?

Have you, like me, been guilty of all three at some point in your life?

More importantly, what does the way you pray say about your picture of God?


Jesus’ advice about prayer

The sure cure for our unhealthy–perhaps anemic–prayers is a dose of biblical advice, so let’s go there.

Jesus’ prayer habit

First, does everyone understand just how much Jesus depended on prayer?

  • He started His ministry started with prayer (Luke 3:21)
  • He went up mountains to pray alone (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46)
  • He rose up before sunrise to pray privately (Mark 1:35)
  • He prayed all night (Luke 6:12)
  • He ended His ministry praying (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:46)
  • And more…

Jesus practiced what He preached…so let’s now look at what he preached:

Matthew 6:5-15:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

10 Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread,

12 and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

What can we learn from Jesus’ example prayer and advice around it?

  • That we should never do prayer for show
  • That we should have private prayer
  • That quantity or repetition of words does not increase prayer effectiveness
  • That when we pray we should picture God as our [ wait for responses ]…that we should picture God as our Father.
  • That we should “hallow” our heavenly Father (honor Him as holy…treat him with respect and honor)
  • That we should pray for His will
  • That we should look to Him to provide our daily needs
  • That we should ask Him to forgive us…but not before [ wait for answers ]…but not before we forgive others
  • That we should look to the Lord to help us fight our temptations

Quite a lot in one prayer, eh?!

But doesn’t this all make sense if our picture of God is that of a trustworthy, powerful, caring, and loving father?

Wasn’t Larry Richards wise in naming a section: “The Impact of the Concept of God in Pagan Religions”?

If our prayers come up short when compared to Jesus’ advice, what does it say about our picture of God?

The second time Scripture captures Jesus’ example prayer is in Luke 11:1-13…let’s see what else it adds:

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.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

3 Give us each day our daily bread,

4 and forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

And lead us not into temptation.”

5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The actual prayer shared by Luke is shorter, but he does include a couple more points we can learn from:

  • Be persistent (not for God’s sake, for our own).  Ask.  Ask.  Ask.  Don’t give up.
  • Trust your heavenly Father knows what you need, and will provide it

So…in just two scriptures about the sermon on the mount Jesus gives us 11 bits of advice.

Larry Richards ended up with a slightly different take–one that’s a bit more eloquent than mine:

1. True prayer is an expression of a human being’s personal relationship with God.

2. True prayer involves reliance on the fatherliness of God.

3. True prayer involves an expression by those who know God through Jesus of:

(a) respect for God as holy;

(b) submission to God’s sovereign right to rule;

(c) commitment to moral obedience and to fulfilling God’s purposes;

(d) daily dependence on God;

(e) determination to live as a forgiven and forgiving person; and

(f) reliance on God for strength to meet successfully any testing which He devises.

[ Richards, L. (1998). Every prayer in the Bible (143). Nashville: T. Nelson. ]


More advice

Obviously the Bible has much more advice on praying.  Whether it be Paul saying that we should pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17), James telling us not to doubt when praying (James 1:5-8), Jesus telling us to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), or John telling us to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are “committing a sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16)…the Bible is full or guidance…both straight up and by sharing great examples.  (For instance, what was Daniel’s habit?  “He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God…” — Daniel 6:10.)

With all these great words of wisdom from Scripture…do you suddenly feel like a prayer warrior?

Not me…but a Puritan, William Gurnall, did say something that speaks to me:

Praying is the same to the new creature as crying is to the natural. The child is not learned by art or example to cry, but  instructed by nature; it comes into the world crying. Praying is not a lesson got by forms and rules of art, but flowing from principles of new life itself. [Thomas, I. (1996). The golden treasury of Puritan quotations (electronic ed.). Simpsonville SC: Christian Classics Foundation. ]

We don’t “learn” to pray like we pick up chemistry in high school…prayer is something we naturally grow into as God continues His work of regeneration in us.  It is from the heart, not the head.  I need…you need…to let God make prayer natural for us.

I’d like to wrap up with the thoughts of another Puritan, Thomas Brooks:

God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor yet at the geometry of your prayers, to see how long they are; nor yet at the arithmetic of your prayers, to see how many they are; nor yet at the music of your prayers, nor yet at the sweetness of your voice, nor yet at the logic of your prayers; but at the sincerity of your prayers, how hearty they are. There is no prayer acknowledged, approved, accepted, recorded, or rewarded by God, but that wherein the heart is sincerely and wholly. The true mother would not have the child divided. God loves a broken and a contrite heart, so He loathes a divided heart. God neither loves halting nor halving. [ Thomas, I. (1996). The golden treasury of Puritan quotations (electronic ed.). Simpsonville SC: Christian Classics Foundation. ]

Nothing matters more in prayer than your heart…except…I would argue…the God you are praying to…

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Alan is an ordinary guy, living in a small, high plains Colorado town...and humbled to be a minister of God...

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