Kevin Halloran

Overcoming the Obstacle of Legalism in Prayer

It’s interesting to note that a good deal of biblical commands to pray come with a promise of the amazing results that prayer can have. This means that these commands to pray are not to burden us, but rather to inspire us. Don’t let a legalistic mindset make you focus on your own actions or efforts in prayer. Set your eyes on our gracious Father, and pray in confidence.

I once heard another believer give a stirring talk on prayer. Everything was profoundly encouraging until he said the following:
If you don’t spend at least two hours in prayer each day, how can you expect to live a godly life?
That sentence startled me because we just don’t see that in the Bible. Yes, it’s good to spend time in prayer. Two hours even. And prayer IS essential for sanctification. I know his statement was meant to encourage, but it may have wound up having the opposite effect in the long run, because it was legalistic.
Legalism is trying to earn God’s approval by our works, in this case our prayers or prayer life. Legalism often adds rules to our faith that God never gave us.
There are two main ways we can be legalistic about prayer: thinking too much about the quality and quantity of our prayers.
Overemphasizing quality might subtly believe that we can cajole God with the right mix of external factors like eloquence, passion, intonation, or fist pumps and hand raises. (This might be especially evident in group prayer.) Overemphasizing the quantity of our prayers acts as if God is keeping a quota for the number of times we pray or a stopwatch to track the length of our prayers.
Thankfully, a glance at biblical teaching on prayer shows that God cares about our heart posture in prayer and the content of our prayers instead of more arbitrary measures like quantity or quality.
I’d like to give recovering legalists some encouragement as we think about what God wants and doesn’t want in terms of the quality and quantity of our prayers.
The Quality of Our Prayers
There is nothing wrong with prayers that sound good or are emotional, assuming they’re prayed with the right heart. In fact, I want to help you improve the quality of our prayers by making their content as biblical as they can be. But we must not think we can bribe God to answer our prayers based on their quality.
We can’t forget that God is our Father. Think how ridiculous it would be for an earthly father to only pay attention to his children if they worded their requests JUUUUST right or with the right intonation.
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God’s Sovereignty Should Fuel Prayer, Not Hinder It

God is “mighty to do much more abundantly than we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Do you pray as if this were true? No, God is not always going to answer us in the way we want or at the time we want. But when we pray in faith, everything is possible, not because we are so wise or powerful, but because our sovereign God is.

When believers misunderstand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, it can hinder our prayers. The reasoning behind this misconception goes like this:
God sovereignly rules over all things and has His plans and purposes in mind for the universe. Why would our prayers do anything to change His plans and purposes?
Yes, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is a big topic. But I’m convinced this is an easy obstacle to overcome as it relates to prayer. Let’s look at three propositions that can help us.
Proposition #1: God sovereignly governs the world.
Ephesians 1:11 says, “God works all things according to the counsel of his will.” He is sovereign over every molecule and every event of the universe. Nothing happens without His notice, and all that happens only happens because God allows it.
Proposition #2: God calls us to pray.
It would be strange indeed if God commanded us to pray if prayers didn’t accomplish anything. Doesn’t the Bible say that “the prayer of the righteous person has great power as it is working?“
For God to command prayer if it were worthless and powerless would seem an awful lot like Lucy from the Peanuts cartoons pulling back the football right when Charlie Brown goes to kick it. Praise God that He isn’t like that.
This last proposition is how we reconcile these first two truths:
Proposition #3: God has determined to sovereignly use our prayers for His purposes.
To think that God’s sovereignty makes prayer unnecessary or unfruitful fails to acknowledge God is sovereign even over our prayers, and that God has decided in all His great wisdom to use the prayers of imperfect people as a means to carry out His purposes in the world.
On this topic of God’s sovereignty and prayer we can often overanalyze the inner workings of prayer and God’s response.
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What Does “The Prayer of a Righteous Man is Powerful and Effective” Mean?

Effective prayer has greater results than we can imagine. God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Do you pray as if this were true? No, as I’ve mentioned God isn’t always going to answer us in the way or timing we want. But when we pray in faith, everything is possible, not because we are so wise or powerful, but because our sovereign God is.

The book of James says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16b ESV). Other translations say, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV) or “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (KJV). This verse motivates us to cry out to God because He uses our prayers to change the world.
But what exactly does this phrase from James mean? Does it mean that we will receive everything we pray for, or that holiness strengthens our prayers? Before answering these questions and pointing out the characteristics of effective prayer, let’s look at the verse in its context.
The Context
The book of James ends with a call to prayer:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray… Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him… And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:13–16a)
In other words, if prayer can help a brother who is sick, battling sin, or suffering for any other reason, pray! God listens to the cries of His children. Then in verse 16b, James reiterates the power of prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Characteristics of Effective Prayer
Elsewhere in Scripture we see characteristics of effective prayer:
1) Effective prayer is done in faith.
James mentions “the prayer of faith” twice, once in James 1:5-8 and again in James 5:15. Faith is necessary for effective prayer because, as Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Some people try to manipulate God on this point, claiming that they will receive their requests because their requests were (supposedly) made in faith. But the prayer of faith is not about the results of our prayers. Rather, it has to do with the simple belief that God exists, listens to us, and that every outcome of prayer is in His sovereign and merciful hands.
2) Effective prayer has the right motives.
James mentions another obstacle to effective prayer: false motives. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Impure motives can disqualify our prayers.
3) Effective prayer comes from the lips of “the righteous.”
James does not promise that everyone’s prayer can obtain everything asked for, he specifically mentions “the prayer of the righteous person” (emphasis mine). We must be careful at this point, because no one is perfect and God ultimately listens to us because of Christ’s righteousness, not ours. However, our holy living does matter in prayer, as James asserts.
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When Prayer Makes Anxiety Worse

What makes His peace special isn’t that a simple prayer zaps all our problems immediately; it is that we can know the One who transcends it all, and we can call Him our sovereign and loving Father. We can trust that He often allows life’s situations to draw us to Himself and grow us more like Christ. Our emotions are not slaves to our circumstances, rather Christ set them free to enjoy heavenly peace and joy now no matter what. This is peace the world longs for, peace God longs to give, and peace that is ours in Christ.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).
Year after year, search data on major Bible websites show Philippians 4:6–7 to be one of the most popular passages in Scripture, and with good reason: it shows us God’s proven path from anxiety to peace.
Unfortunately, our desperate hearts easily get off-track seeking a remedy for our stress. We treat this precious passage as a talisman, missing the true meaning and path to peace. A recent situation of mine illustrates this.
As I thought through my stressful situation practically, my anxiety worsened. The same thing happened when I tried to fix my attention on something else—anxiety would boomerang back around in no time.
Then Philippians 4:6-7 came to mind. Prayer is the answer!
So I knelt down to pray.
My prayer started out fine, but soon I felt like I was trapped in a hot car, breathing the same air over and over again. Each line of my prayer gasped for breath and brought a deeper longing for fresh air. Prayer made my anxiety worse.
What happened? Was God’s promise in Philippians 4:6–7 a sham?
As I reflected on this troubling episode, I realized that God’s promise wasn’t a sham but rather I had it all wrong.
A pity party will not lead you to peace.
My anxiety-driven prayer didn’t make things better. That’s because God doesn’t promise any type of prayer to be the silver-bullet anxiety stopper. He prescribes supplication with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). A heart lacking gratitude will not encounter the peace of God.
I soon realized my lack. My lame attempts to thank God were not from the heart but were always preceded with a “but,” as if to say, “God, I thank you for this, but you owe me.” Sidestepping true thanksgiving leads to a cocktail of other sins, including self-centered grumbling, cynicism, coveting the situations of others, entitlement, and ultimately unbelief. These are all the opposite of thankfulness.
My self-centered pity party lamented my situation always instead of rejoicing in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). We are to pray with thanksgiving “in everything” (Philippians 4:6).
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What does “God has Spoken by His Son” Mean in Hebrews 1:2?

Jesus Christ is more than a prophet; He is God’s Son, True and better Israel, and the prophesied King who will reign on David’s throne forever. When Jesus opens His mouth, God speaks, for Jesus is fully God and fully man. Jesus the Son shares the ultimate revelation of God the Father through His perfect life, authoritative teaching, atoning death, and victorious resurrection.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2a, emphasis added)
Jesus is the Ultimate Word from God
While idols often have mouths but cannot speak (Psalm 115:1–8; Jeremiah 10:1–10), we worship the Creator of the universe who does speak and has chosen to reveal Himself progressively to sinful humanity.[1]
God first revealed Himself through the prophets, using many of them to write the Old Testament Scriptures. God’s revelation to and through the prophets was fragmented, incomplete, varied, and anticipated a greater revelation. That greater revelation has come through Jesus Christ (see Luke 24:44; John 5:39–40; 1 Peter 1:10–11).
Jesus Christ is more than a prophet; He is God’s Son, True and better Israel, and the prophesied King who will reign on David’s throne forever. When Jesus opens His mouth, God speaks, for Jesus is fully God and fully man. Jesus the Son shares the ultimate revelation of God the Father through His perfect life, authoritative teaching, atoning death, and victorious resurrection.
All of history led up to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the rest of history flows from it, until its culmination when Jesus returns “to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28). The new covenant ushered in by Jesus makes the old obsolete (Hebrews 8:13; Jeremiah 31:31–34). Thus, the revelation we have in Jesus Christ is final and definitive. No other revelation is needed; no greater revelation is possible. We don’t need prophets, priests, or kings like in Old Testament times because we have the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King, Jesus Christ.
To underline this point, the author to the Hebrews continues in 1:2b–4, describing the identity of God’s Son.
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Pray for God’s Kingdom to Come

To pray “Your kingdom come” is to express our longing for God’s perfect rule on earth. It is to bow before King Jesus and forsake our personal kingdoms. It is to acknowledge the transience of earthly kingdoms and their true place in history (see Ps. 2; Dan. 2). It is to ask for God to bring salvation to the lost and judgment to His enemies. With these words, we pray that He will cripple the domain of darkness and speed ahead the advance of the kingdom of light.

Several years ago, while on a trip in order to train pastors in Latin America, I sat in a pastor’s office in one of Ecuador’s largest cities while preparing my heart to preach in thirty minutes’ time. Pastor Jaime offered me coffee and started sharing the history of his church’s building. I was a little confused at first (I don’t normally enjoy hearing anecdotes of foreign real-estate transactions before I preach), but soon Jaime’s story gripped me.
Jaime and his wife Lirio had been grieving the destructive impact that a local nightclub was making on their community: local youth were being led astray, households were being destroyed, and crime rates were increasing. So Jaime and Lirio began to pray for the nightclub to close. They continued to pray for about five years—until one day, by God’s grace, it closed. The building where it had been sat empty for two years.
Meanwhile, God was reaching people through the church that Jaime was pastoring, so the church sent Jaime and his family to plant a new branch of the congregation. But where would it meet? Jaime and his church family prayed for a location that would help him to reach more people with the gospel. And the best option turned out to be the former nightclub that was sitting empty.
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Praying the Lord’s Prayer Specifically for a Person or Situation

I’m convinced the Lord’s Prayer is the ultimate prayer tool and the first thing believers should memorize, that’s why I mention it so much in my book When Prayer Is a Struggle. If we can learn how to use this Spirit-inspired prayer tool well, many of our struggles to pray will dissipate.

One of my favorite prayer practices is to simply pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13) for something specific. It could be a spiritual battle I’m going through or a person. Let me share two examples of what this means:
1. The Frustrating Coworker
Say there’s a coworker who has been talking bad about you to your boss and coworkers, and people are starting to turn on you at work. (Watch a short video of this example.) Pray like this:

Father, help me glorify Your name in this trial with my annoying coworker in every thought, word, and deed.
Would Your Kingdom come in the life of this man—grant him faith and repentance unto salvation, and would You help me live obediently under Your kingship as I persevere in this trial.
Lord, You know how I want to be vindicated and how I don’t want to lose credibility at work, but would Your will be done in this situation. I submit to You.
Please give me the wisdom, patience, self-control, love, and the words to say in this situation.
Please forgive me for the bitterness and anger that have welled up in me because of my coworker’s sin against me, and help me forgive him as You have forgiven me.
Lead me not into the temptation of wanting revenge, or growing more angry, and deliver me from evil people and the attacks of the enemy who wants me to dishonor You with my actions.

That is just one example of how praying the Lord’s Prayer gives us words to pray to God.
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How the Lord’s Prayer Can Help You Overcome Your Prayer Struggles

It’s possible your greatest need in prayer is not to know more about it, but rather to know how to use the most foundational and comprehensive tool given to us in Scripture. As with any tool, its purpose is found not by focusing on the tool, but rather on setting our eyes on our praiseworthy Father, King, Provider, Pardoner, and Protector—and to shape our lives by his sovereign rule and care.

The reason there are so many books on prayer is that even after reading them, we still struggle to pray. Some reasons are intellectual—we don’t know how or why to pray in a particular situation. Some are volitional—our hearts are distracted or apathetic. Still other reasons are due to lacking proper practical tools.
As I’ve pondered how to grow in prayer, one simple solution has stood out as a versatile tool for overcoming our struggles: the Lord’s Prayer. This should come as no surprise, since this is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Matt. 6:9–13).
Here’s how the Lord’s Prayer helps us overcome six common prayer struggles.
1. We forget why prayer matters.
Perhaps the most foundational reason we struggle to pray is that we forget prayer’s purpose. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us. We pray in order to glorify our heavenly Father. We pray in order to unify our hearts with his kingdom vision for the world and to align ourselves with his will. We pray for provision, pardon, and protection from the evil that comes from both inside and outside us.
2. We aren’t sure God hears us.
This suspicion leads many to neglect prayer, which is the only guaranteed way for God not to hear our prayers. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we pray to God our Father. A good father hears the cries and requests of his children. God, our perfect Father, always hears us and always answers us in his way and his timing (not always in the way we want, however).
3. We don’t know what to pray.
Sometimes believers don’t know what to pray, or they pray the same thing over and over and stop praying due to the monotony. The Lord’s Prayer gives us a Spirit-inspired path for knowing what to say in prayer. You might take a general approach to saying the Lord’s Prayer, using its petitions as a template and filling them in with specific praises and requests.
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