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.