We love to teach our 2 year old new words that he will begin to piece together into new sentences. One of the first sentences we teach our kids is "I love you." There's nothing like hearing your toddler say "I love you."
But it usually starts like this. "Daniel, say 'I.'" "I." "Say 'Love.'" "Wub." "Say 'you.'" "You." "Good boy, now say 'I love you.'" "Wub you." Man, that's a great moment. But I'm not so naive as to think that by repeating my words he is expressing love. Using those new words meaningfully comes later.
This helps me think about prayer. We have been indoctrinated to believe that prayer is like the ACTS acrostic (Adoration Confession Thanksgiving Supplication) repeated in sequence. We think that if we can make it through the formula and approach God in the "right way," we have prayed rightly. As if God demands to be told the right things at the right time. I don't think that's how God wants us to pray.
ACTS is a tool, a learning device for baby Christians. The most biblical model for prayer is the prayer of Jesus in Matthew 6. Jesus said, "Pray then like this..." Maybe if we pray this model, all will be well. But, then there's His prayer that's similar but not the same in Luke 11. Well, which model is best? Which one do we follow? If we follow formulas, we have to find one "right" one. If prayer is more natural than that, then we should not baptize a model into becoming a formula and the "right" way to pray. We should focus more on relationship.
I believe that prayer is organic. Models and examples are to be thought through and digested, and then our prayers will be informed by them. But just going through the formulaic pattern is artificial, like my son saying "Wub you" when prompted. God doesn't want us to repeat formulas, but to respond to His character.
The Apostle Paul gives us another thought on prayer. "Pray without ceasing." That's an expression of the organic nature of prayer. It's not that Jesus didn't get this...He lived it! But we are so eager to find Scriptural formulas so we can put God in our box and treat Him like a cosmic vending machine, that we can't see it.
Formulas and artificial patterns are an abuse of models and examples. They might make prayer seem easier, but they can quickly quench a real relationship with God.
Prayer should spring from our lips and hearts at all times and places. It's a cry for help at the moment of need. A plea for forgiveness when we fail. A request for provision when we realize we have not. It should be a response to the character of God more than mimicking a model of prayer.
My son has already mastered this kind of relationship and communication. He runs for a hug and comfort when he's hurt. He asks for juice when he's thirsty. He smiles when he sees me happy with him. He yells "stuck!" when he can't get out of a tight place. He wants me to hold him tight and protect him when he's scared. Daniel knows how to trust his daddy. It's organic and natural.
I want to live in continual faith and talk to my heavenly Father. He hears me. He loves me. He smiles at me. He helps me. He forgives me. He comforts me. He guides me. He is trustworthy and good. I should communicate with Him much like my son communicates with me.