Is there a formula for prayer? How the Lord’s Prayer Provides a Framework for Relationship rather than a Formula for Results

We love formulas. Tell me what I need to do, step-by-step, in exactly the prescribed way, so I can achieve the results I want (or, more likely, the results you got).

Health, sex, fitness, diet, sleep.

Writing, parenting, investing, teaching.

Spirituality, religion.

And prayer.

Is there a formula for prayer?We tend to love formulas for prayer. How many times have we been told that if just prayed a certain way, with a particular mind-set and the right amount of faith, combined with a set way of speaking and believing, we’d see the answers we want from our prayers? Certain preachers sell that line of thinking; some pop gurus do, too.

Don’t get me wrong. There are often very good steps we can take to achieve good results. Learning from others’ experiences is critical to personal growth, and following the path others have laid can be very helpful.  Some formulas seem to work: if you eat healthy and exercise regularly, you will be in better health–a good formula to follow!

But when the formula begins to prescribe too much, offer too much, promise too much, especially in an area where relationships are involved, we can quickly go off the tracks. Formulas can become a way of manipulating others to get what we want, and we all know how dangerous that can be.

Across the spectrum of Christian tradition, there has been a tendency toward formulaic prayers, prayers that, rather than driving us deeper into relationship, reduce our conversations with God to one-sided monologues directing God to a certain, desired response. Perhaps this is no where more true than through the use of the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer which has remained central to the Christian faith and tradition.

Whereas Jesus, only moments earlier, had warned his followers not to “keep on babbling like pagans” we can take this prayer and use it in just such a way, mindlessly repeating the phrases, over and over, hoping to get what we want from it.

Lord's Prayer as a frameworkBut the Lord’s Prayer is not a formula for results–it’s a framework for relationship. The Lord’s Prayer can guide us in conversation, helping us grow in friendship with the Father.

Now, formulas may not look that different than frameworks, but the contrast is vital.

  • Whereas a prayer formula obsesses about the perfect execution of specific words in a particular way, a prayer framework opens up pathways of connection with God.
  • A prayer formula focuses on what we do–our action is central. A prayer framework focuses on who God is–his character is central.
  • A prayer formula treats our actions as initiating God’s response; the Lord’s Prayer as a framework guides us to respond to God’s already initiated love for us.

But even a helpful framework, such as the Lord’s Prayer, can become a formula if we start using it as a means to get something rather than connect to Someone. We can lose sight of the point of all prayer: to grow in our relationship with the Father who loves us. Getting something from God is not nearly as important as getting close to God, though in that context the Father invites us (commands us) to ask him for what we need.

So here’s my suggestion: rather than see the Lord’s prayer as a formula for results, use it as a framework for relationship. Take this simple prayer and let it guide you in conversation with our Father. This is not an original idea, but one that many Christians have used to enhance their friendship with God.

How can I use the Lord’s Prayer as a framework? Maybe this will help:

Starting with the first phrase, simply walk through the Lord’s Prayer and pause during the conversation, allowing your heart and mind to wander as you both talk and listen to the Father.  Linger on ways you’ve appreciated his Fatherly love and care this week. Boldly speak of the places and relationships and conflicts where you want to see the Father’s kingdom come and his will to be done. Humbly bring your needs to the Father who loves you and knows exactly what you need before you even ask him. Don’t be shy about what you feel you are lacking–let him be the judge of how he should respond in your best interest. Take time to reflect on ways you need him to forgive you, ways your heart has despised others or your mind has judged the sick. And be honest about the people you are struggling to forgive, asking for the Father’s help in offering forgiveness. Take time to listen throughout. Pause. Wait. And then move your conversation toward areas you are worried about–trials and temptations that drive you, anxieties that consume you, asking for his protection and guidance and leadership in your life. And close the conversation (but it never really closes) by giving God the glory for being the One who is truly over all, worthy of all praise and honor and love.

The Lord’s Prayer is a beautiful framework for conversation with the Father. Jesus gave it to us to use, like a guide upon a mountain trail, leading us deeper into friendship with our Father.  We don’t use it as a formula to achieve results, but as a framework to enhance relationship. And I believe as we do, we will see growth in our relationship as we enjoy conversations with our Father who loves us.

  • How has the Lord’s Prayer helped you grow in relationship with the Father?
  • How does this contrast between formula or framework help you? What do you find challenging about it?

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