Spiritual Resources > Prayer
God wants people to pray. Jesus set the example. He prayed. He taught His followers to pray, and how not to pray. He brought His closest followers with Him to keep watch and to pray, as He began His hardest day in prayer. The apostles call on believers to be in "unceasing prayer" ( Romans 12:12, Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18; Jude 20; 1 Peter 4:7; Philippians 4:6.) Paul was a pray-er, too ( 2 Corinthians 13:7; Ephesians 1:16-23; Philippians 1:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). The early church urged its members to pray intercessions for all. The early church even prayed for their government's rulers, who were often trying to stop them and (rarely) even kill them. Their concerns were not just for their own.
The more your heart opens out to God in prayer, the more that your time with God will buoy your daily life. Spiritual disciplines and practices assist us in this opening-out.
Jesus gives a great lesson on what prayer is like. It's like the
woman who keeps knocking at the door until the judge comes out
and addresses her concern, if only just to get rid of those
annoying knocks. (Picture Jesus smiling as he tells the story.) But how
much more would you be heard by Someone who loves you? Many
people today wonder if we should be pestering God with our
concerns. The answer is Scriptural: God says 'pester me'!
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There's a big difference between just thinking something and praying it to God. Prayer has a direction. You're not churning it in your brain or sharing it with friends or talking it over with a psychologist or getting in touch with your inner self. It's directed to God -- acknowledging not only God's existence, but also a relationship and even a certain degree of trust. Praying to God is not a waste of time because God is hard at work in this confused, ambiguous world, to draw that world toward God's good purposes. It's your response to God's work. If there's no one there, or if there's no way to relate or even communicate, or if a wrathful god would strike you down just for trying, why would anyone pray? There's an unspoken hope in each prayer, even if it hangs by a thread or is the size of a mustard seed, that somehow the mightiest being of all thinks you matter. God's response also has a direction: you will not be left adrift or be led nowhere (unless, like Israel in the Sinai, you have a lesson to learn from the drifting).
Prayer is no place for illusions. Yet, each of us clings to illusions, and we will end up somehow bringing them into our prayers. This leads to what James called "asking amiss". The Spirit is working to tell us the truth, and the growth of our relationship with God depends on how well we take heed.
One of the growing problems of the church is that it can't seem to get it through its thick skull that God controls the outcome of prayer. Not the Church, not the minister, not the person who prays. It's not at all rare that a pastor does a political sermon where he/she is doing nothing more than playing ventriloquist with a dummy labeled 'God'. (Aside from being idolatrous, it's not funny.) So it is also with the "health and wealth" pseudo-gospel where the church or the believer 'prays' with the attitude of a puppeteer: pull the string, and God's hand stretches out to send forth a blessing. God is not a genie in a lamp; our wish is not God's command. God is not a PEZ dispenser, where you lift the head and out comes a treat. If we are asking anything from God, we are to be asking, not putting in a 1-800 call to a divine telemarketing service or clicking our mouse to reach a multi-level marketeer in some level of heaven. (God doesn't outsource divine attention. God receives your call direct.) God is bigger than you, so don't go bossing God around.
Jesus taught us to pray that God's will be done. That means seeking God's purposes instead of seeking a new car or a passing grade or a fast-track promotion or a miraculous sign. Jesus didn't promise earthly bliss in 30 days or less. Jesus' promises are for those who abide in Him, who put themselves at His service and draw their love from His. His brother James (4:3) said you don't receive, because you ask so you can spend it on pleasures for yourself. There is such a thing as the wrath of God, and one sure way to provoke it is to try to jerk God around for one's own advantage. The Lord will redirect your thoughts as you spend more time with Him. God has something great in store; pray for it!
Prayer is not a laundry list. It is communication with someone you love and trust. So don't only ask when you want something, and don't stop praying once you run out of things you want. Prayer is as much listening ('meditation') as it is talking, as much a sharing as it is a plea for help. Yet, God has asked us (even dared us?) to ask. Nothing's too small, too big, too hard, or for that matter too twisted by our selfishness or lack of perception, for God to hear our prayer and take account of it.
God's here, in the world in which we live, involved in what's going on. A lot of it flies in the face of divine will, but God's very good at finding ways to make the best out of the bad situations created by the skewed creation we are a part of. Even our own worst foul-ups.
Ask, and ye shall receive -- but often ye shall receive something else that's more in keeping with what God needs from you. And it will come in God's time, not ours. God promises those who believe in Christ a loving response. But remember it's not just a matter of praying to God, but God reaching out to you.
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In the Bible, Jesus shares the story about a fixture in the religious community who thanked God he was not like that traitorous tax collecting low-life scum over there. It's not only an example of being prideful, it's an example of reducing a person to a category. Categories are useful for understanding data, but they're dreadful for understanding a person. Categories don't tell the truth about people; people just don't fit. You may not be as out front about it as the proud man of the parable. But do you ever pray about people as if they would have some pre-slotted attitude or worth? It's not hard to find people who pray to God about a "godless liberal" or "heathen" or "hypocrite" or "snob", and so on. But treating people according to a label can be almost as harmful when we mean good by it, because we're not treating that specific person as the person they actually are. It's bad enough that the world around us de-personalizes people; it's sin for followers of Christ to do so, since we know better. Christ died not just for all of us, but for each of us. 'Them', too. Pray like it!
The religious leader of that same parable was doing something else which has no place before God. He was comparing himself (favorably, of course) to someone else. God isn't weighing you against anyone else, no one of today and no one of the past. Like a good mother does with her children, God may not love us all the same way, but God loves each of us completely for who we are. If you're someone who is prone to being depressed, among the most common of mental traps is to say, "I'm not as worthy as (someone else)", or "God, why did you make my life so miserable and that jerk's life so happy". That can be a real downer. But that's not how God sees you. Your real worth is what God deems you to be, and how good or bad or happy or pathetic others are just doesn't matter. If that's so, then there's no reason to let comparison creep into your life, especially not in prayer. All it does is twist what you ask for and dull your response.
Sometimes what you desire is not material at all. Sometimes you just want the sense of control that comes from having everything go according to plan. You believe that if everything follows your plan, it will work out best overall for yourself and those you care about, progressing as it should. Or so you think. So you pray an argument with God, trying to convince God that you have it right, that you know the way to go, trying to talk God into giving your plan a divine blessing. Once again, we forget who is the God here. Our plans are awfully puny when stood next to God's; they're all twisted up in curly-queues, driven by motives deeper than we're aware of, not big enough where big counts, not detailed enough where it matters, not wise enough to prevent us from looking really stupid, not big enough to make up for unintended consequences. The Lord already has a plan under way, called "the Kingdom of God". It's the plan that will take effect, with or without you, like it or not. Thank God for that, or we'd really be sunk! Pray that God will guide you into the part of this plan that was designed for you.
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"I have been driven many
times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I
had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom, and that of all
about me, seemed insufficient for the day."
When you pray the prayer Jesus taught His disciples, you ask God to forgive you as you forgive those who wrong you. It says nothing about those who wrong you forgiving you, or changing their mind about you. It says nothing about those who wrong you asking you -- or even God -- for forgiveness. What 'they' do is not in the picture. It has no part in your being forgiven by God. It does not affect your need and your duty before God to forgive others. A 12-step observation can be made here : you can't change someone else, you can only change yourself. (Whether your changes change others is between them and God, and is not set by you.) Forgiveness does not cause reconciliation. If the other party has not forgiven, or if either party has not taken steps beyond forgiveness to cause change in the situation, there is no reconciliation. But forgiveness is the essential step. It is where you are being led as the Spirit likens you to Christ. Christ bids us to turn around our thinking toward others. The Lord's Prayer isn't a call to pretend we are not being wronged, or to be silent or still as others are wronged. The wrong is still there, and the wrong is still every bit as wrong. But in forgiveness, we share the grace God gave to us for the wrongs we did. Jesus taught us to pray for God to give us what it takes to do so.
God hears our prayers, whomever we are. I myself would even say (as an opinion) that God hears the true prayers of the non-Christian -- certainly a faithful Jew or Muslim. God heard the pleas of Cain for safety, and Cain didn't care about God. A God who is deaf to the cries of an animist mother whose son is dying is a very different sort of god than the Father who sent His own son to die to save the human race. The One we pray to sends rain and sunshine to the evil as well as the good, and calls on us to love our enemies because that's how God loves. The Lord will at least communicate, though the conversation would go differently with those who don't believe. I get the feeling that when God hears some major Christian leader say who is and isn't heard in prayer, God thinks, 'Oh, yeah? Who are you to tell Me who to listen to?'. God's reply is different, the non-Christian's response is different, but the Lord cares about all of us
sinners, whether we accept God's forgiveness and new life or not. Prayer's power comes from God's love and God's
promises, not ours. The difference with the believing Christian is that God promised us full attention and a loving reply, and we can live in that promise. The believing Christian doesn't pray to a Remote Unknown God-Machine which receives our pleas. When the Christian prays, it's to a Father who hears His Son's voice speaking for and with us.
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|ver.: 19 July 2011
Prayer. Copyright © 1997-2011 by Robert Longman.