As Christians we have the powerful privilege of prayer. We know that prayer is important, and that it should be part of our daily lives. And yet; praying is not always easy. Sometimes we echo the question of Jesus’ disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
Using liturgical prayers
Jesus gave His disciples an example prayer, known as the Lord’s Prayer. This is often literally recited by Christians. Later on, churches developed many more prayers that could be used by people to recite literally. A well-known collection of such prayers is the Book of Common Prayers, as used in Anglican churches. But there are many more, in various languages and used by different church denominations. Some of these are general prayers, others specifically suited for particular days or occasions. Such prayers can be helpful if we have difficulty finding the right words to express our thanks or our sorrows, or when our thoughts tend to wander, or when we are so occupied by a particular problem that we can hardly focus on anything else. Balanced liturgical prayers can be very healthy for our prayer lives.
Using your own words
The Bible makes clear, however, that we can also use or own words for our prayers. There are no prescriptions about the length, or the content, let alone about the exact wording of our prayers. Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 6:7: “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
Both liturgical and personal prayers are valuable
Throughout the Bible, we find many examples of prayers that fitted a particular occasion, expressed someone’s personal emotions or doubts, and would not at all be suitable to be copied by other people in different circumstances. This is absolutely fine. Prayer can be very personal communication with the Creator of the universe. So, both liturgical prayers and personal prayers can have a valid place in Christian life.
A practical guide how to pray
Sometimes you might feel that liturgical prayers do not address all of the personal issues you want to cover in your prayer. And yet, when you just use your own words all the time, you might end up with unbalanced prayers or feel like you’re just repeating yourself. If this is a problem for you, the following practical guide might help to develop a personal but balanced prayer life, that will honor God. Take your own hand as a starting point. Each finger resembles a particular aspect of prayer.
Thumbs up: praise God
We start with the thumb. For most of us, the hand gesture of thumbs up is pretty clear. Think for example of Facebook, where this signal is used very often. It expresses approval for someone or something. Applying this to prayer, our thumb reminds us to praise God for Who He is and for what He has done for humanity. In the Psalms we find many examples of praise: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9) “Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all His praise?” (Psalm 106:1-2)
Point to God’s blessings
Next comes the pointing finger, which is often used to point out things around us. In our prayer, we point to all the blessings God has given us, and thank Him for them. “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify Him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30). “To You, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for You have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of You, for You have made known to us the king’s matter” (Daniel 2:23). “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8).
The middle finger: disrespect and sin
Extending the middle finger is generally considered a disrespectful gesture, which shows contempt. Although you probably don’t use it like that literally, the middle finger reminds us of all the times we treat God or others with disrespect. There is often so much sin in our lives that we should confess and ask forgiveness for. Make it a structural element of your prayers to clear away everything that stands between God and you. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The Psalms offer multiple examples of this kind of prayer as well, see for example Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.”
The ring finger: how we relate to others
The ring finger is where many people carry a wedding ring. This is a symbol for the people you are connected with: relatives, friends, fellow believers. At this point in your prayer, take some time for supplication for people around you. Paul asked for example in one of his letters: brothers, pray for us. In his turn, Paul writes in Colossians 1:9: “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Jesus even orders us: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28).
Pray for yourself last
Last but not least, there is the little finger – a reminder to pray for ourselves as well. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). If we pour out our hearts before God in prayer, we can be sure He listens. “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:8).