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After more than ten months of special emphasis on prayer in our community, and after, what I feel has been some very good fruit in our own lives because of it, I have suddenly started thinking that prayer, as such, isn't the number one need that we have as Christians.

I say "prayer as such" because I think that what is most important really is an aspect of prayer. But it is an aspect which can easily be overlooked.

I'll try to explain, step by step, how I have come to this conclusion.

First, I observed that a lot of people who are firmly opposed to us* are still in favour of prayer. That seemed a bit strange.

*The Jesus Christians have received a lot of opposition from traditional church-goers, whom they often refer to as 'churchies'.

Churchies, are, of course, traditionally in favour of prayer... and lots of it. And the emphasis all seems to mesh in nicely with the whole concept of public prayer, which Jesus forbids. I remember a religious leader who used to say that he had prayed so much that it had become a habit for him to say "praise the Lord" or "thank you, Jesus" about everything that happened to him. Once again, I saw it as a very good practice... and I still do. But that leader, and his followers, eventually got very far away from God, despite their continuing emphasis on prayer.

Earlier this year, I sat beside my father as he was dying, and he would pray almost constantly. In some ways it too was inspiring. But in all of his praying, he never appeared to think once about the lifelong divisions that existed between him and me over the teachings of Jesus. My mother too, who is violently opposed to the teachings of Jesus, goes around praying for everyone under the sun.

So as I studied this paradox, it came to me that what is missing from the prayers of all these people, and what could very easily be missing from our own prayers, is the willingness to examine ourselves critically, and to ask for God's help in changing our lives to conform with the truth that we should be hungering and thirsting for.

In other words, there are many people who are full of their own self-righteousness at the same time that their lives appear to be full of prayer. The Pharisees were not averse to praying, and yet in one account, Jesus talked of them only "praying to themselves" and not really talking to God. (Luke 18:11)

I definitely have not arrived at the conclusion that prayer is wrong. It may even be that God would award some credits for various aspects of the prayers of these people who seem to be far from the teachings of Jesus.

But the aspect of prayer that counts for the most, and that I have been suddenly struck with, is our sincerity. I say that this is an important part of prayer, because when you think about the breakdown of the Lord's Prayer, sincerity crops up in a number of different forms.

When we ask for God's will to be done and his kingdom to come, we need to be expressing a willingness for his will to take precedence over our own will. When we ask God to "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" we are praying for God to "keep us on the rails". You cannot do this if you cannot consider the possibility that you may be off the rails. And when we say, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," we must be willing to recognise our own specific "debts" or sins, and we must also be willing to deal with any bitterness or self-righteousness that we have toward others.

All of these aspects of prayer seem to be the bits that are missing in the religious illustrations that I gave above. They practise a lot of praise, which amounts to saying "Lord, lord!" But they do it without obeying Jesus. (Luke 6:46) And they make a lot of requests for help from God, whether it be for health, wealth, or success on their own projects and with their own plans. In other words, they major on praise and petition, but they do it without sincerity; and without sincerity, it's pretty much useless.

So, with all of our emphasis on prayer, let us not forget that what matters most is constant self-examination, constant hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and constant desperation that God's will may be accomplished even if it has to override our own sins and selfishness.

(See also Superstition.)

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