Praying Before Others With a Humble Heart
IT WAS a delightful day in Israelite history. King David had arranged for the Ark of Jehovah to be brought into the new capital city, Jerusalem. Joyfully, he praised Jehovah before all the people, concluding a heartfelt prayer with these words: “Blessed be Israel’s God Jehovah from eternity to eternity.” With full hearts, those listening “said ‘Amen’ and gave praise to Jehovah.”—1 Chronicles 16:36, The Bible in Living English.
In ancient times, it was not uncommon for a qualified person among God’s people to represent others in prayer in this way. And Jehovah’s servants today have the same practice. Congregation meetings, assemblies, family mealtimes, and home Bible studies are some of the occasions when Christian men—and sometimes women—have the privilege of representing others in prayer. (1 Corinthians 11:4, 5) The result? As in David’s day, those who listen and say “Amen” are upbuilt and feel that their relationship with Jehovah is strengthened.
Representing others in prayer is a weighty responsibility. The one praying must express thoughts that properly reflect what is in the hearts of those listening. His prayer affects their spirituality. Hence, those who enjoy this privilege do well to echo the request of David: “May my prayer be prepared as incense before you.”—Psalm 141:2.
How can we prepare our prayers so that they are as sweet-smelling as incense before Jehovah? By giving forethought to what we are going to say in the light of the guidance Jehovah has provided. The Bible contains numerous exemplary prayers as well as much fine counsel on the subject of prayer. Considering this information will teach us important principles that are especially helpful when we pray in the hearing of others and on their behalf.
With a Humble Heart
One such principle is that Jehovah listens to prayers offered by humble people. (2 Chronicles 7:13, 14) The psalmist tells us: “For Jehovah is high, and yet the humble one he sees; but the lofty one he knows only from a distance.” (Psalm 138:6) As an example of this, consider the humility of King Solomon in his public prayer at the dedication of the temple. He had just completed construction of one of the most magnificent buildings ever to be seen on this earth, but this did not make him haughty. Rather, he prayed: “Will God truly dwell with mankind upon the earth? Look! Heaven, yes, the heaven of the heavens themselves, cannot contain you; how much less, then, this house that I have built?”—2 Chronicles 6:18.
We too should be humble, especially when praying on behalf of others. In part, humility is shown by the tone of voice. Of course, Christians should avoid false humility or sanctimoniousness. But humble prayers do not sound bombastic or theatrical. (Matthew 6:5) Humility is shown, too, by what we say. If we pray in humility, we will not demand that Jehovah do certain things. Rather, we will petition that he consent to act in a certain way in harmony with his will.—Compare Psalm 118:25.
Humility, too, will lead us to avoid using prayers to prove a point or to give personal counsel to individuals. Otherwise, we will be showing the spirit manifested by the Pharisee in one of Jesus’ parables. Jesus spoke of a Pharisee and a tax collector who were praying at the same time in the temple. The Pharisee said: “O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.” But the tax collector kept beating his breast, saying: “O God, be gracious to me a sinner.” Jesus’ conclusion? “This man [the tax collector] went down to his home proved more righteous than that man [the Pharisee].”—Luke 18:9-14.
Jehovah’s servants who are truly humble also recognize their position before him. They are a little lower than the angels, while Jehovah is the everlasting, supreme Sovereign of the universe. (Psalm 8:3-5, 9; 90:1-4) When individuals have the opportunity to speak to kings or rulers of this world, they usually do so respectfully and with dignity, highly appreciating the privilege. Should we be less respectful and appreciative when speaking to “the living God and the King to time indefinite”? (Jeremiah 10:10) Of course not. Thus, such expressions as, “Good afternoon, Jehovah” or, “We want to talk to you, Jehovah” are out of place in prayer, as are conversational remarks such as, “How are you today?” “Give our love to Jesus,” or, “Have a nice day.”—Compare Ecclesiastes 5:1, 2.
Did not the apostle Paul say, though, that we should approach Jehovah “with freeness of speech”? (Hebrews 4:16; compare 1 John 3:21, 22.) Does that not give us the freedom to speak as we see fit? Not really. Paul’s expression referred to the fact that because of Jesus’ sacrifice we can approach Jehovah in spite of our sinful condition. We can approach him in prayer at any time and on any subject. But even while praying with freeness of speech, we must humbly recognize our own insignificance. Thus, Jehovah said: “To this one, then, I shall look, to the one afflicted and contrite in spirit and trembling at my word.”—Isaiah 66:2.
Jesus Christ gave further counsel on prayer in his Sermon on the Mount. In it he warned that when praying we should not “say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do.” (Matthew 6:7) This does not mean that we should not repeatedly pray about the same subject (as long as we are sure it is the right thing for which to pray). We are told: “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) Rather, Jesus’ warning meant that we should not repeat things to the point of their being meaningless. In other words, “Do not utter empty repetitions.”—Matthew 6:7, Ref. Bi., footnote.
Certain people have the custom of repeating prayer formulas over and over again without giving any thought to the words. Sometimes the formulas are in a language that the one praying does not understand. This is one type of ‘empty repetition.’ Here is another: Imagine a Christian who negligently falls into the habit of automatically using the same expressions every day when offering thanks to Jehovah. Eventually, the phrases become meaningless. Even the divine name, Jehovah, can be used in this way. True, we are urged to call upon Jehovah’s name. (Psalm 105:1) But if we use that name at the end of almost every sentence in our prayer, then it becomes like a mannerism or an ‘empty repetition.’
Paul touched on another important principle when he wrote: “If I am praying in a tongue, it is my gift of the spirit that is praying, but my mind is unfruitful. . . . If you offer praise with a gift of the spirit, how will the man occupying the seat of the ordinary person say ‘Amen’ to your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:14-16) In Paul’s day certain Christians received the miraculous gift of tongues, and evidently some among them prayed in these tongues before the congregation. But as Paul showed, the rest of the congregation did not understand them.
Today, we do not have such a miraculous gift. But Christians praying in behalf of others should pray in a way that will be understood. For example, at the beginning of a public talk, we invite members of the public to join with us in prayer. In such a prayer, surely it is reasonable to avoid vocabulary or subject matter that the visitors would have difficulty in understanding.
How Long Should Prayers Be?
Private prayers can be as long as we want them to be. Before Jesus chose his 12 apostles, he prayed all night. (Luke 6:12) How long, though, should a public prayer be? Well, before handing around the emblems when instituting the Memorial of his death, Jesus ‘said a blessing’ and ‘gave thanks,’ evidently doing so in brief prayers. (Matthew 26:26-28) On the other hand, Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple was quite long. So was Jesus’ prayer the night before he died.—2 Chronicles 6:14-42; John 17:1-26.
Hence, there is no rule about how long a public prayer should be. But there is no special virtue in long prayers. In fact, Jesus criticized the scribes who ‘devoured the houses of the widows and for a pretext made long prayers.’ (Luke 20:46, 47) Prayers on behalf of others should clearly mention their circumstances or needs and should be of a length appropriate to the occasion. We do not need to offer long, rambling prayers covering many unrelated points. When giving thanks for a meal, a prayer could be quite short. A prayer opening a Christian meeting does not have to be long either. The one representing a family at the beginning or the end of the day, or the one concluding an assembly in prayer, may wish to cover more points that are appropriate to the occasion.
Prayer offered on behalf of others will have a fine effect if it comes from a humble heart and is expressed with due balance and consideration. It will build up the spirituality of those listening and will strengthen their relationship with Jehovah. As a result, like those who shared that heartfelt prayer of David when the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem, all listening will be moved ‘to say “Amen” and to praise Jehovah.’—1 Chronicles 16:36.
[Box on page 22]
Is it appropriate for listeners to say an audible “Amen” at the end of public prayer?
Yes, if they desire or feel impelled to do so. Paul spoke of the “Amen” said by those listening to a prayer, although he did not specifically say whether this was audible, or silent in their hearts. (1 Corinthians 14:16) However, under the Mosaic Law, there was an occasion when the Israelites were specifically instructed to say “Amen!” out loud. (Deuteronomy 27:14-26) Hence, when the person praying indicates the end of his prayer by saying “Amen,” it is appropriate for the listeners to say “Amen” in their hearts or audibly with a low voice. Parents should train their children to show proper appreciation in the way they express any subdued “Amen.”
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If a baby starts crying, a telephone rings, or some other disturbance occurs during a congregation prayer, is it disrespectful for a listener to handle the emergency?
No. In fact, it would be an expression of love for a ministerial servant to leave the praying congregation quietly and handle the emergency in an orderly fashion. (1 Corinthians 14:40) Thus, the rest of the congregation can continue praying undisturbed. Whoever handles the emergency can join again in the prayer when the emergency is over.