what am I doing wrong?
I recently came to terms with the fact that I don’t know how to pray effectively. But this isn't because of a lack of effort. I keep detailed lists of prayer requests from my church family and missionaries and my personal requests. Yet I can pray through these lists and still come away feeling like something is missing. I continue to ask myself: what am I doing wrong?
I feel especially inadequate when I hear the stories and testimonies of church leaders rising at 3 a.m. to pray for three to four hours a day. To hear about the prayer life of E.M. Bounds was for me like hearing a great singer (e.g. Whitney Houston) and realizing it’s great she sings that well, but I certainly never will.
With this in mind, I set out to determine what I can do differently. I knew I had to approach this differently if I wanted to get a different outcome. My search led me to the Old Testament tabernacle. I found that the tabernacle is a great model for prayer.
Now, let me be clear about a few things:
You don’t need a formula to pray. This ought to be the clearest of these points.
All that said, it’s important we understand that there are levels of prayer, just like there are levels of communication with our friends. Think about it.
You see your friend just before church and you say, “Hey, what’s up” and, because you are both busy, you keep moving. But then there are times when you run into a friend at a coffee shop and you chat for 15-20 minutes just catching up. That chat is deeper than the brief greeting, but not the deepest conversation ever. And then there’s that friend with whom you stay up till 2 a.m. at camp sharing your heart and maybe even crying. This is a much deeper level of communication. Our prayer lives are much the same way. You can have those surface-level prayers, those slightly deeper prayers, or those Mariana trench prayers.
...more of God is available to those who are willing to press in and go further and deeper in prayer.
When considering the tabernacle in the wilderness, what you find is that there is an outer court, a holy place, and a most holy place. You can stand in the outer court and get a sense of the presence of the Lord. But as you go deeper into the tabernacle, that sense of God’s presence deepens until you finally arrive at the most holy place, which is the exact place that God told the Israelites he would meet them.
Exo 25:22 And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.
Now this doesn’t mean that if you don’t follow this approach that God won’t meet or speak with you. It does mean, though, that more of God is available to those who are willing to press in and go further and deeper in prayer. I was one that wanted to go deeper but didn’t know how. This approach is meant to help you with the “how” part!
Now before I go into this, I think it’s necessary to mention two key practical hindrances to prayer. Certainly there are spiritual hindrances to prayer such as lack of faith and/or unrepentant sin. But there are also two practical hindrances to prayer:
- Sleepy Prayers! God is not interested in your sleepy prayers! How would you feel if you were talking to someone and that person was nodding off in the middle of the conversation. Would you keep talking to that person? I wouldn’t. I’d end the conversation (kindly, of course) and tell the person to go take a nap and let’s talk later. If you can’t be awake and present, then don’t expect to go anywhere deep in prayer with God. You can’t pray effectively from a position of laziness and tiredness.
- Short Prayers! In much the same way that you can’t really have a quick in depth conversation with a friend in 5 minutes, it is the same way with God. How deep can your prayer be if you don’t have quality time with God? How long should your prayers be? Well, the common answer is, “I don’t want to give you a time; just make sure it’s quality time.” I want to challenge you, though, to answer Jesus’ call to his disciples. What did Jesus say?
Mat 26:4 And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?
Try it this week. One hour. You might not be able to do it every day. But try it just one day. One quality hour of prayer.
Let me give you the solution to both sleepy and short prayers: GO TO BED EARLY AND ON TIME.
For some of you, your morning tomorrow is already ruined because you’ll be up till 12:30 a.m. tonight. Of course you’re not going to get out of bed early enough to pray for an hour before you leave for work! Your bedtime the night before sets the trajectory for your devotion time the next day. So go to bed on time. This is a CRITICAL area where the servant of God must learn to crucify the desires of the flesh. It’s time for bed because I have an appointment tomorrow for which I cannot be late or tired.
God, I am coming to you because I want you to get the glory out of my life
So now you might be thinking, “Okay Eric, I’ll accept your challenge, but I still need to know how to do that. What I am I going to talk to God about for an hour?”
And with that let’s get started! This is by no means an exhaustive study. There’s so much about the tabernacle that can be a guide for our prayers. This will, however, give us a basic framework to go off of.
Turn over to Exodus 28.
The Priestly Garments
Before we deal with the tabernacle, we need to deal first with the person walking into the tabernacle. The Priest couldn’t just roll into the tabernacle any old kind of way. He had to have on the priestly garments, and we must as well. We are priests, are we not?
Rev 1:5-6 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen Now look at Exo 28:2. God tells Moses to make garments for Aaron for what purpose? I’ll give you a moment.
The garments Aaron was to wear needed to declare God’s glory and beauty.
So this actually gives you your first item of prayer. Acknowledging the purpose of you coming before the Lord: God’s glory and beauty. Write down that verse reference and make this proclamation the starting point of your prayer.
My prayer to declare God’s glory and beauty usually sounds similar to this:
“God, I am coming to you because I want you to get the glory out of my life, out of my city, out of this church, and out of this world. I am coming to you because I want my life to be beautiful to you and those around me because you deserve the glory.”
I have found it to be healthy to read this verse while praying and reaffirm my purpose and goal in coming to God. Is God’s glory my chief desire?
Now let’s look at the actual garments in Exodus 28: 4-43 (verse 4 is the main one). There’s A LOT here with just the garments alone. We don’t have time or space to consider the significance of each item where prayer is concerned.
Certainly the most basic study of the priestly garments teaches us that we must come to God not with our own righteousness, but by the righteousness of Christ. Aaron couldn’t just walk in the room donning his favorite tunic; he had to put on something more beautiful and worthy.
Thus, you must be saved (thereby covered in the glory and beauty of Christ) to pray effectively (Philippians 3:9). The only prayer that is significant to the lost man is the prayer of repentance and receiving Christ. Apart from that, all other prayers from the lost man are in vain.
Delving a little deeper, there are three things that I believe the priestly garments require of us. These items give us our next three topics of prayer.
...how often do we forget the holiness of our God?
Drop down to verse 30. Aaron was required to wear the Urim and Thummim. These items are somewhat of a mystery in the Bible. There’s some data about them, but a lot of it is still unclear. One thing that is clear, however, is that God gave it to them to help in difficult situations (Num 27:21). It seems that if they didn’t have the tabernacle erected but needed to hear from the Lord, they could use the Urim and Thummim and these stones would light up and enable them to know what God willed.
The next item of prayer, then, is a declaration and recognition that God will speak! How many times do we fail in prayer because we come to God having already decided before praying that he is not going to speak? Acknowledge in prayer that you believe and expect that God is going to speak with you (Jeremiah 29:12-13, 33:3).
The next item of prayer is based on the ephod which bore the names of the tribes of Israel (Exo 28:9-12). Similarly, you need to come to God with a burden for others. This doesn’t mean you can’t pray for personal things. But it does mean that the mature come to God on behalf of others. So take time to come to God with supplications and intercessions for those you know. If you wanna be hard core, come up with 12 names. I created two separate lists of 12 names. I chose 12 guys I’m investing in, and 12 leaders I’m praying for.
Exo 39:30-31 And they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like to the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD. 31 And they tied unto it a lace of blue, to fasten it on high upon the mitre; as the LORD commanded Moses.
You need to spend some time in prayer meditating and praying about God’s holiness. A priest would never come into the tabernacle without their mitre, yet how often do we forget the holiness of our God?
...the work of Christ should never be old to the believer.
Once you have prayerfully considered the above, the next step is to enter the tabernacle.
The Tabernacle Itself
You first have to enter in the gate.
Exo 26:36 And thou shalt make an hanging for the door of the tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, wrought with needlework.
Every time anyone entered the tabernacle, they had to enter through the gate and see its colors. These colors represent our next stop in prayer.
Spend quality time praying through each color and what it represents. Spend time giving thanks to God for each aspect of Christ’s sacrifice. Praying through this daily has taught me that the work of Christ should never be old to the believer. In every moment we should be in awe of his sacrifice.
What better way to start your day than with meditating on and praying through the work of Christ? It’s very sobering and sanctifying to consider Christ and his sacrifice before starting your day.
Once you have entered the tabernacle, the first piece of furniture you encounter is the bronze altar (Exo 27:1-8). This is a place of sacrifice. For the believer, this is the place where you sacrifice your own will (Rom 12:1). The level of sacrifice in your prayers determines the extent to which God will get the glory from your life.
Here you must examine your desires, goals, dreams and consider if there is anything you are holding on to that is contrary to God’s will. If so, it’s time to put it on the altar! Lay down your plans and ask God for his.
Next you move to the brass laver (Exo 30:18-21). This is the point for washing. This is where you confess sin. It’s not like the bronze altar where you may still be trying to figure out God’s plan for you in a particular area. At the laver, you are washing away the dirt. You know clearly that it’s dirt, and you’re dealing with it (1John 1:9, John 15:3, Psa 51:2).
After leaving the laver, the priest is now ready to enter the holy place. In the holy place would be the table of shewbread to the right, the golden candlestick on the left, and the altar of incense directly in front.
The priests were required to keep 12 loaves of bread on the table. They were to replace them every sabbath with new bread (Exo 25:23-30, Lev 24:5-8). The number 12 can clearly be connected to the Nation of Israel (consisting of 12 tribes) or discipleship (Jesus had twelve disciples) or even the church (being chosen of God Eph 1:4). So which are we to pray for? All of them! You can find evidence in scripture for why we should pray for Israel (Psalm 122:6), for our disciples and discipleship (Matthew 9:38), and for the church (Eph 1:16). The key here is that you should be burdened for people outside of yourself. Whose burdens are you bringing before the Lord?
These are all a sweet savour of spiritual incense to the Lord.
The golden candlestick (Exo 25:31-40; 40:24-25) was required to be lit continuously. Keep in mind that inside the tent, this would be the only source of light for the priests. And so it is with us, that the Word of God must be our only source of light (Psalm 119:105). The Word of God must be a critical component in our prayers. Too often believers are ignorant of the promises of God as it relates to our circumstances. We must search the Word to know what God has promised and allow his word to fuel our prayers.
The next piece of furniture is the altar of incense (Exo 30:7-8). The priests were to burn incense on it every morning and evening. One practical benefit of the altar of incense is that it masked the smell of sacrifices taking place in the outer court. The incense enabled them to move forward with the work and service in the holy place and holiest of holies without being distracted by the odors of flesh being burned back at the altar.
Don’t miss the picture! By the time you’re in the holy place of prayer, you should have already confessed and forsaken the sin in your life. So whereas a season of your prayer time was devoted to praying over your sin, at some point you move past the failures and disappointments and move to a place in prayer where you are fully trusting in God’s sufficiency to deal with your junk. You are then able to attend to the things of God and be burdened for others. How many of us spend the majority of our prayers consumed with our own failures? This is a time in prayer to begin to truly meditate and be consumed with all those spiritual things that are of great pleasure to God and, by extension, us!
If you have things you are trusting God for, make those requests known. If you have promises you are trusting God to bring to fruition, make them known. If you don’t have anything that you are trusting God for, then ask God to show you what you should be trusting him for. These are all a sweet savour of spiritual incense to the Lord.
God desires to meet with us in the holiest of holies
The final piece of furniture is the Ark of the Covenant (Exo 25:10-22; 26:34) The Ark of the Covenant was essentially a wooden chest overlayed on the outside and inside with pure gold. It contained the two tablets on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The lid of the ark was called the mercy-seat, and blood was sprinkled upon it to cleanse the nation of Israel. It was made of solid gold and was an exact fit to the ark (Rom 10:4).
There is a clear picture here of the Ark being Christ: we are sprinkled from an evil conscious (Heb 10:21-22) through his mercy and by his blood. This is the point where you want to spend time reading the Word and listening for what God will say. In Numbers 18:8-10, you find that Aaron and his sons were allowed to eat of the food brought to the tabernacle. What this should teach you is that God wants to sustain us when we come to him (Pro 8:17).
Walking through this model for prayer has resulted in the most fulfilling and satisfying prayer time I’ve had in a long while. My desire is that you would make the time to put these principles into practice in your own life. God desires to meet with us in the holiest of holies; we ought to make our way there.