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How Do Prayer Customs Become Meaningless Ritual?

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Spiritual disciplines yield valuable benefits for both this life and eternity.  It makes sense to repeat them on a regular basis. (Matthew 6: 9-13)

But sheer repetition can render a custom ineffective and insignificant.  We can go through all the right motions and say all the right words without engaging our heads or our hearts.  As a result, any prayer custom can erode into meaningless ritual.

Jesus noted the temptations that can accompany public prayers (Matthew 6:5), long prayers (Matthew 6:7) and prayers with fasting (Matthew 6:16).  Though these prayer customs are essentially good, the familiarity that comes with frequency can introduce spiritual apathy toward these important disciplines.

Jesus later condemned the religious leaders by quoting Isaiah the prophet: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Matthew 15:8-9).  He warned against allowing the holy to become commonplace.  Make certain you pray from your heart, not just by heart.  

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How Should Christians Understand Prayer?

When trying to understand what prayer is, a good place to start is identifying what prayer is not.  Prayer is not a formula (i.e., if I pray in a certain way, then God will be obliged to give me what I ask for).  Prayer is not a way for us to convince God to bend to our will.  Nor is prayer just one of several religious activities we engage in to earn God’s favor.

Rather, prayer is an ongoing conversation during which we get to know God more intimately.  Oswald Chambers wrote the following in My Utmost for His Highest:  “When a person is born again from above, the life of the Son of God is born in him, and he can either starve or nourish that life.  Prayer is the way that the life of God is nourished…..We look at prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves, but the Bible’s idea of prayer is that we may know God himself.”

As we get to know God, we begin to see our circumstances from His perspective.  We then adjust our will to God’s will.  Chambers also wrote:  “When you begin to pray , things remain the same but you begin to be different….It is not so true that ‘Prayer changes things’ as that prayer changes me, and then I change things.”

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Mark 1:35. (NIV)

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