Have you ever wondered how to pray? Have you ever not known how to pray? Not that you didn’t know the mechanics (that’s easy enough), but you didn’t know what to ask for. Faced with a certain problem or situation, you were at a loss and didn’t know what to say or do. As a leader, this can be especially hard when we are called to lead others but are at a loss ourselves.
Sometimes it seems hard to find answers in scripture especially when we are looking for answers to specific questions. But maybe what we really need is theology on principles so that we know how to answer or respond to these specific questions.
I think about the Psalms and how encouraging they are at times—yet how utterly confusing they are at other times. Yes, it’s encouraging to read of God’s faithfulness, but there are other things I just don’t know what to do with. David, himself, when it comes to prayer, is a bit of a challenge for me.
I read Psalm 13 and, on the one hand can understand David’s frustration but can never bring myself to say that I have truly trusted—as he does. Or talk about enemies as if I am innocent—which he also does. Clearly, I think, David must not understand everything about imputation and God’s righteousness that is given to him. However he does show an understanding of that in amazing depth in Psalm 19 when he says,
“Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”
Here we see that he understands a great deal—declare me innocent? Keep me from presuming on your righteousness? Only then will I be blameless and innocent. Then David prays in Psalm 139 for God to search him—
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Beautiful on one hand, but difficult if we don’t see the whole picture of who David knew he was—apart from his other times of confession, this could seem obtuse to his own sinfulness. John Piper says we often use the line, “God knows my heart” as if that’s good news. I feel a little like that when I read David saying “search me.” I think oh, no this isn’t good.
The way David talks is a great picture of something very unique about prayer. It is a very lopsided relationship, isn’t it? But at the same time, we have a freedom to communicate in prayer that doesn’t exist anywhere else. What a powerful thing to demonstrate to others—that God is approachable—something we as leaders can model for others.
This begs for our consideration on how to approach prayer because we often start out completely confused on how to get started. Yes, God has shown himself to be approachable and absolutely prodigal in his love for us. Yet, he is the ruler of the universe, right? He is the creator and sustainer of all things. And, as you know, he is perfect. These attributes ought to give us pause.
Charles Spurgeon said, “A true prayer is an inventory of needs, a catalog of necessities, an exposure of secret wounds, a revelation of hidden poverty. Ah, my friends how many of our prayers are an abomination to the Lord.” It is interesting to think about the idea that God is very specific at times about how he is to be approached and how he is to be worshipped. Did you know there is a recipe that God gave for the incense that would be used to please him? And no one else was ever to use it? God gave very specific instruction on the incense that was to be used and offered up to him by the Priests of Israel in prayer. See Exodus 30:34-38. This is a fascinating section.
”The Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”
Do you wonder what that would smell like? Do we even have the same sense of smell as God? And why did he choose to show himself as having a preference for a particular smell since he is a spirit? To me this is fascinating.
Two main theories about what Onycha was—based on similar words—either a part of a snail (which doesn’t seem like it would smell good) or a type a desert rose petal. Stacte is a sap from a type of balsam tree. Galbanum is an essential oil from another common plant in the region.
It is interesting that there was a fragrance that he requested and found pleasing, that he wanted reserved for himself. He decided what it was that pleased him just as he found one sacrifice from Abel acceptable and one from Cain not. He also says our acts of worship are an incense to him as well, it is a great reminder that he is the one that makes our works acceptable—even to himself. He makes them a fragrance that is pleasing to him. He receives our prayer.
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.