Needlessly long and wild prayers.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 May

Don’t let people pressure you into hypocritical prayer practices.

As I’ve written previously, ain’t nothing wrong with praying short prayers.

You might remember the Lord’s Prayer is a really short prayer. I mention this to Christians and they respond, “Oh! Yeah, that’s true.” Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them. Obviously Jesus has no problem with us keeping it brief: His example showed is it’s fine with him.

Problem is, we’re not following that example. We’re following a different one—where Jesus went off places and prayed for hours. Seriously, hours. One evening he sent his students off ahead of him and climbed a hill to pray; Mt 14.22-23 by the time he caught up with them (walking across the water, but still), it was “the fourth watch of the night,” Mt 14.25 KJV meaning between 3 and 6 a.m. Even if we generously figure Jesus stopped praying and started walking two hours before the fourth watch began (so, about 1-ish), that meant he was praying from sundown till then. Easily six or seven hours.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be able to pray that long. But it needs to come naturally, like it does to Jesus. Can you talk six or seven hours with your best friend, or a beloved family member? Well some of us can. Others of us simply don’t talk that much, to anyone. And yet we all have this screwy idea we’ve gotta engage God in prayer marathons.

No, we’re not ready for six-hour prayers; we’re not Jesus-level prayer experts. But we figure we can at least do six minutes. Sounds reasonable, right?

Except we’re gonna attempt a six-minute prayer with two minutes’ worth of material. Two minutes of praise, thanksgiving, and requests. Followed by four minutes of repetitive, meaningless fluff. Two minutes of authenticity, four minutes of stretching things out. Two minutes of prayer, four minutes of hypocrisy.

Yes, hypocrisy. Who are we trying to impress? God? He didn’t ask us for long prayers. Others? Ourselves? Well, yeah.

Hypocrisy loves company.

The needlessly-long prayer is learned behavior. Humans don’t naturally pray super-long prayers. We do it ’cause we see other Christians doing it. Or ’cause other Christians prod us into doing it.

Give you an example. Couple weeks ago I was watching a YouTube video, and someone—let’s call her Ratna—came up to me and asked me to pray for someone, whom we’ll call Keelin. I don’t wanna say what Keelin’s problem was either; let’s say it was a really itchy rash.

So that’s how I prayed: “Lord Jesus, please cure Keelin’s rash. You can cure it. You know best. I trust you with the solution. Amen.”

Didn’t take long to pray this. Why would it?

But if you’re not praying in faith, you’re gonna figure that prayer’s much too short. God needs something longer than that. We need to make sure he heard us. Or need to make sure God knows we mean it. The more serious the request, the longer the prayer needs to take. Right? If it’s a really big request, we oughta be on the floor, on our face, weeping and moaning and ripping our clothes, for hours.

That was Ratna’s thought when she came back over, and found me back watching that YouTube video.

SHE. “Aren’t you gonna pray for Keelin?”
ME. “I did. Just a minute ago.”
SHE. “You can’t have prayed very long.”
ME. “Didn’t need to. ‘Lord Jesus, cure Keelin.’ How long’s it take?”

But Ratna was clearly irritated. ’Cause to her mind, short prayers aren’t serious prayers.

And Christian slang backs her up on this. We’ll call these quick petitions “arrow prayers” or or “bullet prayers” or “missile prayers” ’cause we shoot ’em up to heaven; “flare prayers” ’cause we hope they make a bang. “Dart prayers” ’cause we’re asking for only one thing, and hope we hit our target. “Popcorn prayers”—a term which has a lot of different definitions, but one of ’em is that they’re hasty, noisy, and probably superficial. Or “flash prayers” or “microwave prayers.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t take Keelin’s problem seriously. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother to pray. But to certain Christians a “serious prayer” has to look a certain way. Not necessarily with torn clothes, burlap clothing, and ashes poured on my head like we find among the ancient Hebrews. But they do expect us to assume the position and histrionics of a begging, pleading mourner, and spend hours on our face before God… trying to wear him down till he gives us a “yes” answer.

And that, folks, is an act.

Or as Jesus calls it, hypocrisy. He doesn't want us to go through the motions; he wants us to pray. Mt 6.5-14 So since Jesus doesn’t want ’em, I don’t do ’em. I pray like a believer: I tell God what I want or need, then I leave it in his infinitely capable hands. If he has any followup instructions for me, I expect he'll tell me what they are.

Otherwise I prayed. What more can I do without crossing the line into playacting and hypocrisy?

Prayer tantrums.

Now yeah, if we humans find ourselves in dire need—if we’re crazy worried, if we’re in mourning, if we’re frightened, if we’re panicking—we’re gonna babble to God a lot longer than just a minute. In part because we’re irrational. As emotional people will be.

Nothing wrong with that either. When we’re really emotional, by all means bring your worries and fears to God. Best place for them. He’ll calm us down.

But do our emotions add more weight to our prayer requests? Nope. Doesn’t work like that. Jesus makes it clear our faith adds weigh to our prayers. Mt 17.20 Not our frenzy. If I trust God, he’ll act. If I’m too panic-stricken to trust God, and keep repeating myself in prayer over and over and over, ’cause I wanna make sure he heard me, or ’cause I want him to know I really mean it: God is kind and patient, and can work with me in spite of my faithless behavior. Doesn’t mean he’ll give me a “yes” answer just to calm me down.

’Cause if he did work like that, it’d be like one of those bratty children who pitch a fit ’cause they don’t get what they want. I’m writing this from a coffeehouse; about a half hour ago I was in line, and watched a little girl burst into tears because she wants a cake pop—an overpriced bit of cake and frosting on a stick. As babies, we found that crying gets us what we want; as little kids, we have to unlearn this. Some of us never do unlearn this; usually because our parents caved in whenever we made a fuss. And some of us actually think this works on God: If we pray really loud, really long, and really emotionally, he’ll give us what we want.

God really doesn’t care to answer such prayers. Here’s why. Say I go through the motions of a big long prayer tantrum. Say this is one of those instances where God wants to answer the prayer with yes, despite my childish behavior, so he does. What’m I gonna think? That pitching a fit works on God. That I wore him down. That I win. Every tantrum is a battle of wills, and as far as I can tell, God blinked first.

This is precisely the behavior we see in Christians who pray themselves hoarse. When they see what they think are results, they figure, “It was my praying that moved God. My faith! My efforts! Me me me!” Worst prayer attitude ever.

But we see it all over Christendom:

  • Mothers taking credit for praying their kids to Jesus.
  • Pastors claiming they successfully prayed bad businesses, movements, or people out of town.
  • Churches crediting their own faith for revivals, nice buildings, or other signs of material success.
  • Faith-healers accepting thanks for curing the sick.

It’s like a man who casually mentions to a developer, “Say, that lot would be a nice spot to build a skyscraper,” and when the developer puts a skyscraper there, the man wants credit for literally building it. It’s just as inappropriate.

Plenty of Christians figure our needlessly long, out-of-control prayers moved God. They did not. God moved God. All we were, was needlessly long and out-of-control.

I remind you gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. It means emotional self-control. It’s a pretty good bet God wants us to demonstrate this particular fruit, not just with fellow Christians and other humans, but with him too. He doesn’t want his relationship with us to be reduced to wild and crazy prayers. It's like having a daughter who only calls you when she’s drunk and weepy.

Don’t do that to your Father!