Five Elements of Prayer

By Darrell Holley

During my first year of teaching I discovered a little book by C. S. Lewis titled Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  My thoughts had been on prayer—you ought to think about prayer in your first year of teaching—and I found the book helpful. Now there are some things in that book that I don’t agree with—as there are in nearly all merely human works.

C. S. Lewis was an Anglican, an Episcopalian, and sometimes dangerously close to Romanist attitudes on prayer—at least much too close for my Free Will Baptist tastes. But I did discover an idea in Lewis’ wise little book that helped me tremendously.

When we read the Lord’s Prayer, we immediately recognize that it falls into several groups of petitions. The Roman and Lutheran churches say there are seven petitions. The Greek and Reformed churches say there are six. I’m a rebellious Baptist, and I say there are five.

I would put them into these five groups: (1) “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” (2) “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (3) Give us this day our daily bread.” (4) And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (5) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Getting Started

The idea that I got from Lewis was to use these groupings as the basis of my prayers. He uses the idea of what he calls “festoons” or “garlands.” Just as you may hang up a garland of holly and ivy over the mantle at Christmastime, just so we can hang our own personal petitions onto these five general petitions.

I suggest a method much like this: kneeling for prayer (I’ll say more about this posture in a minute), first pray the entire Lord’s Prayer—which version you use is really not that relevant. Free Will Baptists, at least as far back as I can tell, have usually used the version with the word trespasses, but if you prefer sinsor debts, use those versions.

Then go back and pray the different petitions individually, hanging your own garland of prayer onto the petition. For example, you might pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Then you might spend time reverencing, hallowing the Lord’s name, giving Him your praise for His character and works.

Getting Real

Then you pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is encouraging, for God recognizes that all our needs are not sweet, mystical, spiritual needs. We also need food and shelter, money for tuition, clothes for the baby, a new water heater, or a good used car. Express yourself. The Lord wants you to want Him to help you.

Then, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” At this point we have to face hard realities. Unfortunately, not one of us—if we are honest—can go to our beds at night with a clear conscience. We offend “in thought, word, and deed” every day. We need forgiveness. And we also need to forgive others.

Confess to the Lord your anger and disappointment at the actions of others. If you group it with your pleas for forgiveness, you may find yourself more sinning than sinned against, to turn around King Lear’s words.

Finally, “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” We pray not just to avoid temptations to sin, though we should pray for that kind of grace. But also for deliverance from trials and all dangers. It’s proper to pray for protection of your family and your property, for deliverance of your kin and friends and even your enemies.

However, with this prayer, as with the earlier request for “our daily bread,” we must always remember to pray—as our Lord Himself did—”if it be thy will.” We need to pray, not just to inform God—the Almighty knows our needs before we ask—but we pray to put ourselves, by our own free will, into submission to the will of God.

The Lord has promised to answer our prayers. But we have to remember, consciously to remember that “No” is just as much an answer as “Yes.” Tennyson wrote, “Our wills are ours, we know not how; our wills are ours, to make them thine.”

After completing the five petitions, you can repeat the Lord’s Prayer again, slowly, thinking very intently but very briefly about each petition.

I don’t know if this is exactly what our Lord meant when He said, “After this manner prayer ye” in His “Sermon on the Mount” or when He gave this prayer to the disciples in response to their request “Lord, teach us to pray.” But this seems to me to be a good practice.

What About Kneeling?

Obviously, the posture of the body in prayer is not nearly as important as the posture of the soul. Some of my most piteous, most impassioned prayers have been given in non-kneeling positions: for instance, like bouncing around in a car as it went off an icy road into a ditch.

But on the other hand, we have numerous scriptural examples of people kneeling in prayer and 2000 years of Christian practice to recommend it. When I was a boy, my family knelt together every evening for prayers. Our Free Will Baptist ancestors used to kneel together frequently in public prayer. It’s good for the body to learn that discipline.

But, as C. S. Lewis says, ‘A concentrated mind and sitting body make for better prayer than a kneeling body and a mind half asleep.” When should you or your family have your devotional hour? My family had theirs in the early evening. I remember reading in Corrie Ten Boom’s wonderful book The Hiding Placehow her family gathered at the table after breakfast each morning for scripture reading and prayer—and they included their hired help and, later, the Jews they were hiding from the Nazis.

Whenever you do it, do it regularly and devoutly. Don’t make a big show about it, just make it a normal part of a normal, balanced Christian life.

Let me give a large disclaimer. By choosing this subject I don’t mean to imply at all that I am an expert prayer, or even that I really have a handle on this art of prayer (and it is an art). I’m still very much a freshman in the school of prayer. But, in this as in all things, practice makes perfect—or, if not perfect, at least better.

Article adapted from Contact magazine, April 2000.