Prayer matters, but not in the way a lot of people think. I was reminded of this a day or so ago in a Facebook group.
The discussion moved to prayer, and a Christian made the point that prayer isn’t so much about the faith of the person praying but the reliability of God. To make this point, he used the illustration of a person about to sit in a chair. His doing so requires some faith that the chair will hold him up, but more important than the strength of his faith is the strength of the chair.
An atheist responded that if the chair work only as well as pray, which is a 50-50 proposition, she look with skepticism at the chair.
I think her comment reflects the attitude of the majority of people, Christian and non-Christian, about prayer. In their mind it’s all about whether it “works” or not, whether the person praying gets what he’s asking for.
This way of looking at prayer reduces God to a cosmic Santa Claus. Year after year, kids ask Santa for things, and some times they get what they want, but other times they don’t. And of course the truth is, none of what they get actually comes from Santa.
Another way of looking at it is as a holy lottery. You pray for big things knowing the odds are stacked against you, but you haven’t actually lost much—just a little time—so why not give it a try, especially in emergencies.
These ideas are pale imitations of the real thing. Prayer is so much more than bringing a wish list before God. In fact, in God’s dealings with Israel there came a point where He told them He would not hear their prayers. From Psalm 18, for example:
They cried for help, but there was none to save,
Even to the Lord but He did not answer them. (v. 41)
And Isaiah 59:1-2:
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Neither is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hid His face from you so that He does not hear.
So what is prayer all about if it isn’t giving God our laundry list of what we want?
I think the most important aspect of prayer is remembering to whom we’re talking. First, God is a person. Not a force. Not a cosmic principle. He is a different kind of person than we humans in that He has characteristics we don’t have, the most notable being infinitude, sovereignty, immortality, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability—you know, little things like that! 😉 So clearly God is not “just your average Joe.”
Nevertheless, He is a person. He loves and gives and communicates and chooses—all things that people do. Of course it makes sense that He is a person because He told us in Scripture that He made humans in His image, after His likeness. So like Him, we think and feel and exercise our will and act. And we communicate.
Not only did God give us the ability to talk with each other, He created a means by which we can communicate with Him. That’s what prayer is.
Interestingly, when Jesus was on earth, He prayed. Yes, He is the second person of the God-head, and yet He prayed. In fact, I don’t know this for sure, but I think Scripture records Jesus praying more than any other person. I think it was that important to Him.
But it’s amazing to think about Jesus praying. He knew the Father knew what He wanted, being as it was exactly the same since Jesus is Himself God. Tell me that isn’t a little mind-blowing. The point for this post is that nevertheless, Jesus being God and God knowing all, Jesus still prayed.
Clearly we can rule out “to inform God of my needs” as the chief purpose of prayer. God knows already! We can also rule out “to talk God into doing what He doesn’t want to do.” In one of Jesus’s most famous prayers right before He was arrested, He asked the Father to “let this cup pass from Me.” In other words, find some other way to save sinners so I don’t have to be crucified. But Jesus ended His prayer by saying, Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours be done.
So why did He even pray? He knew the Father’s will already. It was in the works before the foundation of the world, Peter tells us: “For He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20a). The most logical explanation is that He wanted to talk to His Father, to be reassured, to give voice to His own desires. He could ask, and in the asking, be assured that His Father who loved Him would only do what was right and best and good.
So, going to the cross was what was right and best and good, even for Jesus? Even for Jesus. The writer of Hebrews told us that Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame–that is, showing utter contempt or disregard for the ignominy, disgrace, dishonor—for one reason: for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2).
Joy? Jesus looked beyond the cross to what awaits: sitting at the right hand of the Father; the redemption of those who believe in Him; eternal fellowship with His Church, His bride; His coming return as King at which time every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. These things bring Him joy, all of which, I must point out, involve relationship.
Through the redemption purchased by the blood of Christ we now can be reconciled with God. We who believe will be at His great banquet. We’ll be in the crowd before His throne.
But we also have a relationship with Him right now. As so many before me have said, we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. In other words, the forgiveness Jesus bought for us isn’t simply a future thing. It took care of our sins, but it also brings us into new life, into fellowship with God here and now.
For our part, that means prayer. We have the privilege of talking with God and knowing that He hears and answers. But remember “answers” doesn’t mean we get what we want. It’s no different from a toddler who sees some shiny razor blades and reaches his hand out to pick them up. A loving parent will quickly stop him from hurting himself. The child may cry because he wants those new and interesting objects. The parent may talk to him, hold him, give him something age appropriate to play with instead, but he isn’t about to succumb to the child’s desire for those razor blades.
We, like that child, know what we want, but we don’t always know what we need.
In reality, in prayer we learn to trust God. We learn that we can pour out our hearts to Him but then rest in the assurance that He won’t give us razor blades.
So I’ve gone on and one and have yet to get to the key point—prayer matters. Amazingly, God wants to involve us in His work. He gave Adam the responsibility to care for creation, though clearly God could do the job all by Himself if He’d wanted to. And this was before sin came into the world.
One thing God has given us is prayer as a tool to come alongside others and bring their requests before our all wise and loving and good God. I can pray for Christians on the other side of the globe, brothers and sisters who I have never met, and know that I can intercede for them. I can pray for things that the Bible lets me know they need. I can pray for my pastor and my friends, for our President and for missionaries. I can pray for writers I know and others I don’t. I can pray for family, for teachers I know, for the woman I met on jury duty. There’s no limit. As God brings people to mind, I can pray for them, knowing that He hears and answers.
In the end, prayer matters most because it changes my relationship with God, but I can’t deny the fact that He uses prayer to accomplish His purposes here on earth.
All this, and I haven’t even talked about praising God in prayer. Suffice it to say, that’s a sure prayer. If someone wants to pray, then giving God recognition for His person and plan, His work and His word is a great place to start.