Two Words to Avoid When You Pray

We can turn to Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ first followers, as an example of what not to say in our prayers.

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Posted in , May 12, 2021

What not to pray

I’m a firm believer in praying what you really feel. In my prayers, I’ve cried in frustration, complained of ill treatment and told God what I think of certain people. I’ve even expressed my anger at God. Yet, for all my (possibly foolish) honesty, there’s one kind of prayer I’ve been careful to avoid, prayer after prayer, year after year. I call it the “no way” prayer.

Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ first and closest followers, uttered the most well-known example of this prayer. On that occasion, Jesus told His disciples that he would eventually suffer and die in Jerusalem and on the third day be raised to life. Peter answered, “Never, Lord! ...This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 NIV).

His “no way” prayer elicited such a strong rebuke from Jesus that it makes me cringe: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:23 NIV).

Ouch. Jesus tolerated a lot from Peter, but his “no way” prayer was apparently beyond the pale.

You might think that hearing “Get behind me, Satan” from Jesus would have prompted Peter to strike “no way” from his prayer repertoire…but you’d be wrong.

On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, when Jesus predicted that Peter would deny Him, Peter issued another “no way” prayer: “I will never say that I don’t know you! I will even die with you!” (Matthew 26:35 NCV). This time, however, when Jesus’ other disciples heard the exchange, they made the same claim. On this occasion, Peter’s “no way” prayer presaged his most devastating failure.

Ouch again. You might think that Peter’s second “no way” prayer, which preceded such humiliating defeat, would’ve been his last…but you’d be wrong.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter became a different man. He spoke publicly and courageously of his risen Savior. He suffered arrest and imprisonment for his preaching. But one day, while praying in the seaside town of Joppa, Peter had a vision:

“He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat’” (Acts 10:10-13 NIV).

Peter recognized the voice; it was the Lord’s. But the voice had told him to eat food that was forbidden to Jews like Peter, so he answered in much the same way as he had twice before: “‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean’” (Acts 10:14 NIV).

In other words, “no way.” As my mother used to say of me, “Some people never learn.” 

The voice spoke again, saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15 NIV). It was a message that immediately resulted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ being taken to, shared with and accepted by non-Jews.

Peter’s “no way” prayers—and the rebukes or corrections they elicited—have stuck with me and taught me over the years. I’ve learned from Peter’s example to avoid the “no way” prayer. Not that I don’t sometimes object to—even argue with—God; I do. But even when I think I’m being “righteous,” as Peter did, I stop short of “no way.” I may demur or delay for a while when God seems to be asking or telling me something I don’t like, but I avoid saying “no way.” 

I know the Lord was beautifully gracious to Peter, even hosting a lakeside breakfast to overcome the guilt and shame of Peter’s worst failure. He’s been similarly patient and forgiving toward me, always. But I still do my best to avoid saying “never” or “not so” or “no way” to Jesus. 

Instead, I wait until my heart and head reach a point of surrender and submission that allows me to replace “no way” with the Jesus prayer: “not my will, but yours, be done.”

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