The Cure For Upside Down Prayers

So there’s this thing called “Spatial Disorientation.” About 5-10% of all flight accidents are attributed to this and when it happens 90% of those accidents are fatal. In flight sometimes pilots lose orientation of where the ground actually is, they lose which way is up and down. (This can happen in storms or heavy clouds.) So the pilot will try to adjust for what he or she is feeling and will end up crashing or stalling the plane.

In the same way we fall victim to life disorientation or theological disorientation. We start thinking up is down. We think the most important thing in life, the thing to navigate by, is our health or wealth or comfort. We get overwhelmed by our daily cares like sick kids, long work hours, frustrating personal conflicts. When we finally come to pray we come with theological disorientation. We come with our hearts full of cares and worries, convinced they are where we need to start.

Jesus knows this about us, he knows our constant drift from theological disorientation. So when he shows us how to pray he doesn’t just give us something that will shape our prayers, he gives us something that will shape us as we pray. He gives us a way to turn our upside down prayers right side up:

“Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matt 6:9-13)

A View of God That Changes Us

“Our Father.” This name changes everything in how we see God. Sometimes we are tempted to see our prayer time almost like a business meeting where we lay out “here are all the things I need today” and we try to justify them and make a case. We think of God as cold and detached from us, but this first word is the opposite.

Jesus was telling his disciples to use a word that he would die to purchase. He was rejected by his Father to bear the penalty for their sins so they could be restored. Every time we pray we remember the gospel in that first word “Father.” We can speak to our father because Jesus lost his on the cross.  It is freeing because we can come to God not based on what we do but based on what he’s done for us. We don’t come with a case for ourselves, we come simply as children. But it’s humbling because we didn’t earn it. We can’t bargain good deeds for what we want in God.

And he is not just our Father, he is our Father in Heaven. This is a reference not to God’s location but to his sovereignty. Jesus is saying, “You have a Father who loves you but who is also the sovereign one of the universe. He’s the one who created the universe, who upholds it, who sustains every living thing, who rules over all and directs all as the sovereign king.”

We often bring to God a laundry list of things we want in order to be happy—better boss, better school for the kids, whatever. But the opening lines remind us, “But we have God. We have a Father. He is in control. No matter what happens we have God himself and we will live together with him forever.” This resets us.

A Longing for Glory That Changes Us

“Hallowed be your name.” Here’s the thing about this first request: This probably wouldn’t be my first request on most days. We come and quickly say “I need you to fix my car or my spouse or my report.” Or even we go to a good thing “I need you to fix my son’s health. I need you to fix my friend’s self-destructive behavior.” Many of these are good prayers but the prayer that Jesus starts with isn’t about us at all—it’s about God.

This is the overarching petition that informs all the others and ties them together. This phrase “hallowed” can mean “Let God be counted holy” or “Let God be revered as holy.” God’s holiness means his “set-apartness” it is a summary attribute of God summing up all that God is that is far above any creature or thing in creation both in sinlessness and in power and glory. It is us praying “God let your holiness and glory be reverenced.” This resets all our priorities.

What is the prayer request that drives all your other prayer requests? If you took all the things you pray for and sorted through them I think you’d find a pattern and your pattern would reveal what you want above all else. Do you pray a lot for a big meeting with a client, for a good word from the boss—then maybe what you really want above all is job success? Do you pray for the kids sickness and pray at the first sign of a sniffle—then maybe what you want above all is healthy kids?Look many of the things that get revealed are not bad, but they can become bad if they are out of order. If those things are ultimate we want them more than we trust God and want his name to be great.

Then two follow up petitions here help fill out what this means: “Let your kingdom come.” Now this flows out of the earlier desire to see God’s name hallowed. How does that happen? Well it happens as God brings his kingdom. The story of the Bible is the story of a kingdom lost and restored. Then God sent Jesus who announced “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” and through his life, death and resurrection the kingdom broke into our world. Where is the kingdom today? It’s not in a country or a power structure as the world knows it. No, it comes first in the hearts of God’s people. God dwells with them, renews them, restores them. Now, as that happens we get glimpses of restoration: people reflecting Jesus in radical and counter-cultural ways. When you pray this way you’ll want to flee sin, you’ll want to live as a servant of the king. You’ll want to herald the good news of this kingdom to all around you. Your heart will burn to see his Kingdom come and will be done.

This is again something that radically resets the way we approach life and approach prayer. This is the reality: Your plans for this year will be frustrated. You have hopes that will go unfulfilled. Things you assumed would be certain will be lost. But this prepares us to see that not as something bad but as something we rejoice in. God’s will is good, his plan is better, let his will be done.

Pressing On

After this, with our hearts reset and reshaped, God invites us to bring our requests both big and small. But when we arrive there we find we arrive in a different place than when we began.

So when you set aside time to pray, start where Jesus encouraged us to start: Start by reminding yourself of who God is and by filling your heart with a desire to see him glorified. You’ll find your prayers, and your heart, turned right side up.

Ricky Alcantar

I'm the Lead Pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, TX. I love my wife Jenn, my two boys, and my city. Sometimes I write. Other times I just think about writing and listen to a lot of podcasts instead.