As important as the heart is in our praying, it is not everything. God is not just looking for rash sentimentality or irrational feelings when we pray. Jesus actually gives His disciples words to say when He teaches them to pray in Matthew 6:9-13. He doesn’t tell them to simply come before the Lord with a good heart. No, He tells them to ask for certain things and to pray with a certain logical order or structure to their prayer. The point He is making is that prayer must flow from the heart, to be sure, but it must also engage the mind.
These two things, the heart and the mind, go together. It is precisely because our prayers are to involve a pouring out of our hearts that they must also engage our minds as well. Here is an excerpt from my book Persistent Prayer in which I take up just this point:
If prayer really does involve pouring out our hearts before God in a way that is motivated by an awareness of our need, then this means that our prayers will, therefore, also seek to be as persuasive as possible. I don’t mean to suggest that we try to twist God’s arm into doing something that he originally didn’t want to do—as if that could happen. But if we are really pouring out our hearts to God, we will want to be as persuasive as possible, won’t we? We will not only plead with the Lord, but, like good attorneys, we will plead our case before him.
This is what Abraham does in Genesis 18:22–33, when he intercedes on behalf of Sodom. He makes like a good attorney and argues his case before the Lord. His argument, which is predicated upon the Lord’s justice, is that it is not right for God “to put the righteous to death with the wicked” (v. 25). Abraham pushes this argument until God agrees not to destroy unrighteous Sodom if only ten righteous persons are found in the city.
Moses does something similar in Exodus 32:11–14, after the incident with the golden calf. He “implore[s] the Lord his God” to be merciful toward the people of Israel, and his plea is expressed by way of two arguments. First, Moses argues that if God destroys the people of Israel, the Egyptians will have grounds to impugn his character. They will say, “With evil intent did he bring [the people] out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth” (v. 12). Second, Moses argues that because God “swore by [his] own self, and said to [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever’” (v. 13), he must, therefore, be merciful to the Israelites and not destroy them.
David does the same thing in Psalm 30:8–10, among other places. He bases his “plea” for God to be merciful to him on the argument that God will gain more glory from his life than from his death:
What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
But Jehoshaphat may provide the best example of all in the great prayer that he offers in 2 Chronicles 20:5–12. With the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites on his doorstep preparing to make war with the people of God (vv. 1–2), Jehoshaphat declares a fast throughout the land of Judah, enters the house of the Lord, and prays. His prayer is organized around three main questions: “are you not . . . ?” (v. 6), “did you not. . . ?” (vv. 7–11), and “will you not. . . ?” (v. 12). Jehoshaphat’s plea for mercy begins with his rehearsing the very character of God: Are you not the sovereign God of the universe, the one who is able to do as you please such that “none is able to withstand you” (v. 6)? Jehoshaphat then recounts the ways that God has worked in the past to bring salvation for his people and to fight for them. He concludes by appealing to God to do it again in this present crisis with the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites. Finally, Jehoshaphat acknowledges that God may or may not heed his argument and may or may not answer his prayer. He prays, and he waits to see what God will do: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v. 12).
Making an argument to the Lord isn’t going to twist God’s arm, and it isn’t going to give him information that he overlooked or was unaware of until you and I offered it to him in prayer. What it does do, however, is force us to think through what we are praying for and why. It forces us to think about why God would answer our prayers in the first place, thus aligning us more with his character and will. In other words, praying this way changes us. It helps us to “think God’s thoughts after Him.” It helps make his will and his desires become ours.
A good example of this can be seen in the life of Moses. After making his argument with the Lord in Exodus 32:11-14, Moses later intercedes for the people again and even prays that God would punish him instead of the people of Israel: “But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Exod. 32:32). Even though the Lord explicitly tells us that it is not his will to pardon the people who sinned against him (see vv. 33-34)—and, thus, we might wonder how Moses’s pleading has changed him to “think God’s thoughts after Him”—it is nonetheless true that Moses has been changed. His pleading has at least aligned him more with the character of God, because he exhibits in 32:32 the very character that we see on display explicitly in 34:6, where the Lord refers to himself as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
When we look at Abraham, Moses, and David’s arguments, we see their desire for the glory of God and their compassion for others. Abraham is concerned not only about how God’s justice will be perceived but also about what will happen to the hundreds or thousands of people in the city of Sodom. Moses is concerned about God’s reputation among the Egyptians, but he also desires to see many lives saved among his own people. And David is interested not only in God’s glory but also in other people seeing that glory. Thus we conclude that it is not enough simply to make an argument; we must make an argument that will hold weight with the Lord because it is in keeping with his character and his revealed will.
Making this kind of an argument in prayer obviously engages the mind, which is precisely what Jesus wants us to see in Matthew 6:5-15. Tomorrow we will explore the third point that He wants us to see: we are to pray according to the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer.