From the imaginative prayer of a five-year-old, to the awkward prayer in a circle of teens in youth group, to the elegant prayer of a seasoned saint—how should we approach God in prayer?
Our approach will have less to do with our skill with poetic words, and more to do with what we believe about God. We will pray differently if we think that God is always angry with us, or if we think that God is like a Santa Claus in the sky, who just wants us to be happy. The foundation of all our prayer life is rooted in what we believe about who God is.
When we believe that God is holy and righteous, we have to deal with the reality of our sin and unholiness. If God is holy and we are sinners, what are we to do? Two wrong approaches would be, 1) to lessen the holiness of God to make him more approachable, or 2) to lessen our sin, either by our perception of sin or by cleaning up our act “enough.” Both those approaches leave out Christ.
What Christ did for us is foundational for our prayer life, because while he maintains and lifts up the truth of God’s holiness, he also deals with our sin boldly. It is Christ who cleanses us from sin and clothes us in his righteousness.
“The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).
We may have wrong agendas as we make requests in prayer, so we must recognize the importance of truth, or you could say reality, when approaching God. In fact, it’s only in truth that we can approach God. When we start pretending to be someone we are not, or pretending that it is by our own righteousness that God is pleased with us, we are losing sight of the purpose of prayer. God doesn’t need us to tell him what we think we should be doing. He wants us to tell him what is actually happening. He doesn’t need us to tell him what we think we should be feeling. He wants us to share what we are actually feeling. He doesn’t want us to pretend we have no struggles or doubts. He wants us to tell him about our actual struggles and doubts. God deals with reality, not pretense. He can handle the truth.
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, ESV). God is aware that we are dust, that we need him to breathe. We are not always mindful of this.
So then, what does honesty in prayer look like?
It’s terrifying to be honest before a holy God. This may be why we delay or avoid praying. Instead of confessing the sin that we are currently struggling with, we wait, and hope that we will get ourselves unstuck. Instead of confessing our anger, our unforgiveness, our hurt, our jealousy, we hope we will soon be over it. That way, we can reminisce about it with God later in prayer, and receive assurances that now that we no longer struggle, we are fine. Instead of asking God for things laid on our hearts, we edit and question our motives, and try to get our hearts in the right place first. But we can bring our hearts to God and say, “Help me sort out if this is good or not. Help my fickle heart. Please deal with my motives.”
“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, NASB 1977). God is aware that we have no idea what we are doing. His Spirit has it covered, and will fix all the wrong prayers, and sanctify us in the process. He’s not asking for our perfection. He’s asking for our brokenness, so that he may fix it.
Shouldn’t we be careful how we pray? Shouldn’t we speak to God with respect and honor? Honesty sounds like a terrible idea when you think of the holiness of God. I don’t want to tell God when I’m angry at him. I don’t want to tell him about the grudges I keep and don’t know how to release. Many psalms provide the pattern for confessing “our truth” in prayer. In the process, God’s Spirit exchanges our truth for his truth, otherwise known as “the truth.”
I have found that, often, wrestling with God is an act of faith. Bringing your honest prayers to God and saying “I need you to do something with this, because I’m at a loss…” is an act of faith. Admitting our doubts to God is an act of faith. “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NKJV). Speaking what we know to be true boldly to God, so that he can change our hearts, correct our wrong thinking, release us from sin—it’s all an act of faith. It’s looking to him, not to our works, for our salvation. It’s saying that we can’t, but we know he can. God isn’t waiting for us to get our act together; he’s waiting for us to be honest with ourselves, and with him.
As Christians, we believe that the only way to deal with sin is to have it removed by God. That does not change after we are saved. This fundamental belief affects our prayer life. It means that we don’t get our sin in order so that we can then approach the Father. Rather, because of Christ, we can approach the Father with our sin, so that we may be healed. It is wise not to censor our struggles with God. To do so would be to approach the throne with self-righteousness, instead of the freely given righteousness of Christ.
Yes, God often humbles us when we pray this way. However, humbling may be what we need. We don’t always understand that to be released from sin and gifted with humility is good. It grounds us in the reality of truth.
Whether we are trying to make ourselves righteous through prayer, or we are trying to be righteous enough for God to hear us, both approaches leave a core doctrine behind: we are made righteous through faith in Christ. We are not made righteous in any other way.
In 1 John 1:7, God calls it “walking in the light.” To pretend we are not struggling when we are, is to lie before God. Like Adam and Eve, who hid their shame in the darkness, we are called by God to the light, so that he can set things right. God doesn’t want us to sin, but if we do, the power of his blood can handle it. There is no stain he cannot remove.
To approach the throne of God boldly is to approach it under the reality of Christ’s righteousness, not our self-righteousness.
“No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown,
through Christ my own.”
— Charles Wesley
Gretchen Ronnevik is an author, farmwife, mother, and teacher of six children. Her course on Gospel Mentoring can be found at www.gospelmentoring.com.