Philip Ryken: The effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on their length

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When I became a Christian I heard many godly men exhort me to spend long periods in prayer. Some recommended waking up early to pray, and for some time when I stayed in the hostel on the university campus I used to do exactly this with a small group of other young men – every Wednesday morning we all prayed together early in the morning for about an hour. I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church. As wonderful and beneficial as longer prayers are, I think we have to be careful when it comes to this topic. We’ve always got to remember not to judge prayers based on how long they are. The essence of true prayer is a believing heart calling upon the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 45). In fact, Jesus told us not to heap up empty phrases when we pray, thinking that we will be heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7). And the pattern for prayer that he gave us is pretty short (Matt. 6:9-13). In this regard, I appreciate how Philip Ryken discussed this in his book When You Pray:

“Knowing God as Father means…you can keep prayer simple. When children need something from their fathers, they do not hire a lawyer, draft a formal petition, or get down on their knees, they just ask. That is why Christian prayers are straightforward. The prayers of pagans tend to be overly complicated, but when Christians pray, they pray to their Father.”

“As a general rule, the prayers of God’s children are short and sweet. Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, ‘Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning…Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.’ Indeed, one of the striking things about most biblical prayers is their brevity. It is hard to find a prayer anywhere in the Bible that when read aloud would be more than five minutes long.”

“Some Christians measure spirituality by the amount of time a person prays. True, there is plenty of teaching in Scripture about being devoted to the life of prayer. Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and the apostle Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). However, the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on the length of our prayers.”

“God does not need any lengthy explanations. If you find that your prayer life is too weak, is it possibly that you are trying to make things too complicated? Our prayers must be fervent, of course, and they ought to be frequent, but they do not need to be fancy.”

– Philip Ryken, When You Pray, p. 30-31

God’s people all have different personalities and temperaments. Some can pray for hours on end with great fervency. Others pray short fervent prayers throughout the day. The point is that we pray often, from the heart, to our Father in heaven. The saint that prays for hours is not more spiritual than the saint that prays frequent, brief, heart-felt prayers.

Philip Ryken on the misuse of “Abba”

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It isn’t quite right to say that the Aramaic “abba” means “daddy.” In other words, to call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “daddy” at the outset of our prayers is a bit too casual and irreverent. Philip Ryken explains:

“To call God ‘Abba, Father’ is to speak to him with reverence as well as confidence. Abba does not mean ‘Daddy.’ To prove this point, the Oxford linguist James Barr wrote an article for the Journal of Theological Studies called ‘Abba isn’t “Daddy”.’ What Barr discovered was that abba was not merely a word used by young children. It was also the word that Jewish children used for their parents after they were fully grown. Abba was a mature, yet affectionate way for adults to speak to their fathers…

…The New Testament is careful not to be too casual in the way it addresses God. The Aramaic word abba appears three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). In each case it is followed immediately by the Greek word pater. Pater is not the Greek word for ‘Daddy.’ The Greek language has a word for ‘Daddy’ – the word pappas – but that is not the word the New Testament uses to translate abba. Instead, in order to make sure that our intimacy with God does not become an excuse for immaturity, it says, ‘abba, pater’…

…The best way to translate abba is “Dear Father,” or even “Dearest Father.” That phrase captures both the warm confidence and the deep reverence that we have for our Father in heaven. It expresses our intimacy with God, while preserving his dignity. When we pray, therefore, we are to say, ‘Our dear Father in heaven.’”

– Philip Ryken, When You Pray, p. 57-58.