Our fourteen month-old daughter is learning to talk. Currently, we can clearly discern a handful of words, but she understands far, far more. She talks a blue-streak. Emphatic gestures, volume variation, and facial expressions accompany her babbling. Obviously, it all makes perfect sense to her. Like all children, she is learning to speak from her parents and, in her case, her siblings. We see this vividly whenever she grabs her mother’s cell-phone: she walks around the house with it to her ear, always beginning with “da da” followed by “I meh, shish, ba...”
God wires children’s brains and tongues to learn language from others around them. It comes, then, as no surprise, that God’s children would learn to talk to him in prayer by listening to his words.
Jesus told his disciples: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). In our home, our words abide in our baby, and she speaks using the same kinds of patterns and words, though she naturally personalizes them. So for the children of God. As we live in his house and know him, his words abide in us. Then, when we go to ask whatever we wish, we find ourselves using his words, and we naturally personalize them.
Older children petition their parents by using the same language formulas their parents use. When possible, they smile and quote their parents directly, claiming the promises of the parent: “You said you would...!” Fathers who hear their own words in action take action to fulfill petitions. The intimate relationship between the parties makes these words different than words of manipulation. The words tug at the father’s very heart.
When our prayer language is shaped by God’s language, we also have great confidence that our petitions will be answered because we pray according to the will of God. First John 5:14-16 says: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” God reveals his will in his word, and when we pray in line with that word, we know we are on solid ground.
So how do we learn to pray? By patterning our language after God’s language. Here are three ways to learn to pray as children of the Father who are abiding in the words of the Son, seeking God's face by the power of the Spirit:
- Pray the great prayers of Scripture, personalizing them as appropriate. Call on God's name using the divinely inspired words spoken by Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, of David in the Psalms, of Solomon in 1 Kings 8, of Daniel in Daniel 9, of Nehemiah in Nehemiah 1, of Jesus in John 17, or of Paul in Ephesians 3 and Philippians 1. God himself put these infallible and inerrant words of praise, thanks, confession, supplication, and commitment into the words of men and women. He has preserved them for us to show, in part, what our relationship with him should look like.
- Pray the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. After all, this was Jesus’ answer when the disciples asked that he teach them to pray. He did not merely tell them to pray those words but to “pray then like this.” Authors of catechisms over the years sought to instruct young believers to “pray then like this” by explaining the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Go to the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms questions on the Lord’s Prayer to learn how to pray using biblical language as you add specific details to the guiding petitions of the Lord’s prayer.
- Pray whatever Scripture you are reading today back to the Lord. For instance, if you are reading about the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, you will note that it was difficult for the man to enter the kingdom. The disciples marveled and wondered who could be saved, if not the rich. Jesus said: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We then take those words and pray for the conversion of our unbelieving friends. We can pray: “Lord, We confess that with man, this is impossible, but with you all things are possible. So please do what only you can do and pour out your Spirit on my friend.” You will never exhaust your fuel for prayer if you personalize God's words chapter by chapter and take them back to him.
If you have never tried praying Scripture back to God, you might feel like you are babbling at first, but the Father in heaven loves to hear you mimic his words. Jesus also delights to hear you speaking the language of his house as you live in him. Just like my daughter, you will not babble forever. Your prayers will gain clarity and power day-by-day as your will is conformed more and more to his will. You will see your prayers answered; Jesus has promised it.