When I was young I would wonder about the “science” of prayer. Every now and then I would wonder if we bow our heads so that the prayers bounce off the ground to go up into the sky. Not long after that I learned that we bow our heads as a sign of reverence, deference to God’s complete holiness and righteousness. I wondered why we closed our eyes, and come to think of it I never really did get an answer on that one. I suppose it just helps us to focus. Thinking back on these questions, it seems weird that I would have to question these things. Honestly, I think we all are prone to ponder things like this. But the questions that bother some of us aren’t the minutia like head bowing. For many people the largest hindrance to a healthy prayer life is just the feel of praying: how you feel about prayer in general, and the feel of actually praying. And the truth is… How you feel about prayer says a LOT about your spiritual life.
This is a lesson that I have learned the hard way. I have by no means “arrived” at the place of being wonderful with prayer, and to be honest I still struggle with prayer. I definitely don’t have it all figured out and still have a LOOOOOONG way to go. But, by the Grace of God, I have grown over the past 5 years. I say this to establish that I have felt the doubts of prayer, and I have seen the change and growth that the Lord has provided in me. In retrospect, I can see that my prayer life was weak when I was not as spiritually minded. I only went to God in prayer when there was something wrong and/or I needed something. I never depended on Him for my “daily bread” and I certainly didn’t thank Him… EVER.
There were so many times that I wondered how people could just pray. How people could remember so many things to pray about. I felt like a sub-par Christian because I knew I would never be able to pray elaborate prayers. I knew that I would not be able to speak in flowery terms and speak the “normal Christian-speak.” I just didn't know how to pray. On top of that I kept hearing how we needed to not only be praying daily but many times throughout the day (1 Thess. 5:16-18). I felt weird enough praying once here and there… but over and over throughout the day? That just seemed weird to me. At the time I already felt like I was just talking to myself and that God wouldn’t be interested in me, but add to that that I would run out of things to say. I'm certain that all of us have felt that subtle atheistic twinge at least once. You know... the one where you "feel stupid for talking to yourself and talking to the walls." Where you doubt your convictions because you're so focused on that particular time in space. I say this so explicitly because its something we hardly ever say in open air. I am certain that many people share or have shared the same reservations I felt. You sincerely believe in the righteous Father, who is in heaven, but when it comes to prayer you just feel... well... silly!
But all that changed for me. At some point (while living in Beeville, TX) I just let go of the “expectations” of prayers. I stopped trying to pull ornamental comments to decorate the prayer and just… talked to God. And to be honest, that’s one of the most freeing things I have ever experienced. I finally saw past prayers of "tradition" and overly ornamental dearly-belovedism* and simply talked to God like He was physically sitting right there in front of me (Matt. 6:6-8).
And see, that’s exactly the point of prayer in the first place.
GOD WANTS US TO TALK TO HIM.
God is our Father. He loves to bless us, and he wants to be in communion with us. He wants us to rely on Him for everything. Not that we literally pray for something and wait for it to magically appear; as Mark Driscoll said, (paraphrase) not that He is some mystical sky fairy waiting to fulfill our wishes; not that he is some piñata that you hit with a prayer stick and blessings come falling out. Prayer is not about manipulating God into continually giving us what we want, when we want it. Rather, we rely on him for blessings that are in accordance with His will. We trust that he is faithful to His promises that are through His Messiah, the Christ, but furthermore we should trust that he ALWAYS answers prayer.
No, I did not misspeak. Yes, God ALWAYS answers prayer. It’s just that the answer is not always yes. Sometimes the answer is “yes”, sometimes the answer is “no”, and sometimes it's “later”. God, in His wisdom, doesn’t always bless us with what we want but with what we need. You may know what you want, but God knows what you NEED. So, to greatly oversimplify it, there will be times that you will ask for something and you don’t get it because (for whatever reason) not having it produces in you better results than if you did get that thing. Sometimes you will ask for something and God’s reply seems to be “no” when in reality its “later”; the thing you ask for may be something He will bless you with later, but at the time you’re not ready for it or are not ready to fully appreciate it. Perhaps “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly...” (James 4:3). And when it comes to praying about our various situations we need to stop praying for God to take us out of the testing/situation but rather ask that He help us get THROUGH it. It becomes very easy for us to ask God to deliver us from uncomfortable and/or trying situations and then become angry when he does not do so. Suffering in this life produces endurance, character, and hope, so we must understand that there will be many times where God will absolutely not take us out of those situations because of the benefit and growth that will come from it in the same way that fire refines gold. (Rom. 5:3-5, 2 Cor. 4:16-18). We know that God does not cause bad things to happen, but He uses the trials and times of suffering to work for good (Rom. 8:28).
Seeing these things clearly, we have to continually remind ourselves to pray for His will upon our lives. Yes there are times to be specific; but knowing that He already knows what you need before you have even asked (Matt. 6:8), knowing that we don’t know what to pray as we ought to (Rom. 8:26), and knowing that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (Rom 8:26), we should continuously pray: "Lord, I pray that *this* might be done, that *this* might be the result; but let it be not as I would will it to be, rather let it be in accordance with Your will" (Matt 26:39,42). What was the last time you prayed that His will be done in your life WHATEVER it takes? Think about it. Do you have strong enough faith in God’s faithfulness to be able to pray that His will would be done or that He might be glorified even if it meant trouble for you or not getting what you want?
My wife, Carah, has applied 11 places for her next job; the place where we go will be based on a matching process. In March we go to a matching event and will be handed a letter that says where we will be living for the next 3 years (the only requirements on my side were that the potential places be in Texas, and that there be a Starbucks nearby. No I don't have a problem with caffeine, I have a problem without it). For a long time we simply prayed for God to give us the place that was/is our top choice because of all the benefits of being there. After a while it hit me that we had selfishly been “asking dad” over and over so that we could get our way. That, while it’s not wrong to want to be placed in our top choice, we need to be wanting first and foremost for His will do be done in our life. We see the value and significance in the place we want to go, but maybe that isn’t what God has in store for us. And it’s very easy to forget that, even when you have seen direct providence acting in your life before. I keep on having to bring myself back to a place where I want Him to be glorified first and foremost, where I am not an arrogant child trying to manipulate a parent so that I get my way.
"I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time; waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me." --C.S. Lewis
The frequency of your prayers reveals how much you depend on God in your life. Daily prayer to God is daily dependence on Him. Like I said earlier, how you feel about prayer says a lot about your faith and your spiritual life. As I have continually sought God in my life (whether it be reading the bible, reading "christian living" books, listening to sermons on podcast, etc) I have seen myself grow into a more natural need for prayer. I have passed that stage of "doing it because I need to" or "doing it because I'm supposed to" and, instead, do it because I have a desire to speak with my Father.
When God revealed Himself through His Son, Jesus, He sought to portray Himself as our Father. And, as with ANY father, we should always go with respect but not to the point of detachment of emotion and relationship. What father have you ever known that wants his kids to talk to him as if they were formally meeting a king from a foreign nation? We should certainly never go to God with irreverence, but if He specifically used the earthly father-child relationship to represent how He loves us and wants to be in communion with Him, then surely we should look to that same earthly relationship to understand how He wants us to revere Him and speak to Him. Another thought: think about all the times you've seen a child go to a father and butter him up with words so that they can get their way. Earthly fathers see right past that charade.. so why would we ever delude ourselves into thinking that our Heavenly Father doesn't see past the very same thing when we do it to Him? Not that it's wrong to praise Him or to be descriptive to Him, but those things should always come from the heart and never from a mind of "if I'm nice enough enough He'll _________." We need to pay attention to how we are revering Him. Are you selfishly focusing more on yourself than others or Him? Do you pray more about your needs, or His needs? To quote Mark Driscoll again, when it comes to prayer: "Bring your need, not your greed."And furthermore, are you praying for God's advice before a decision/occurrence, or are you just going to Him afterwards with an "oops, please fix this" prayer?
For some of Michael's thoughts on practical prayer, click here.
For more tips on talking to God, click here.
One Last Thing
I remember years ago flipping through television channels and stopping on some random movie. To this day I have not been able to figure out what the movie was, and I can't even remember the channel. It was a twenty-something Middle Eastern man walking in the street while speaking to his friends. Whatever it was that they were talking about I didn't catch, because it was just some guys on TV. What caught me was when the guy stopped walking, turned, smiled at his friends, and said "let’s go to God in prayer." Wait... what??? I wasn't sure what shocked me more, that I had just seen that on TV in America or that the story involved a guy stretching out his hands to his friends, in public, to pray to our God in heaven. Beyond the initial shock of it, I was overwhelmed by this sense of awe in a person being so bold about prayer with others, much less doing so out in public in front of tons of people. To this day I am still awed by the memory of that scene, it still encourages me to be more bold in my prayer life and to share that prayer life with others. The Pharisees from the first century were rebuked for praying in public, maybe we should be rebuked for never doing so.
What we need is to be continually seeking God, through what Jesus did for us. We need to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and as we do so He will work in us through His Spirit (1 Thess. 2:13). As that happens we will grow in the need to be fulfilled by Jesus and not in worldly things. As all these things progress, we will naturally grow to depend upon His promises and communion with Him through prayer.
*It is not wrong to praise God with words, and should absolutely be done. But when we pray, ESPECIALLY in public prayer, we should be careful to not overly embellish with words. When Jesus prayed it was concise. He praised His Father, but He didn't stack adjectives and adverbs unnecessarily to do so. You don't have to speak "dearly beloved-ism", because KJV-ing your prayers does not necessarily make for a "more holy" prayer.
Dan lives in Texas with his wife Carah and their obnoxious collie Kirra.