I don’t understand prayer. I’ve thought about it, written about it, heard sermons about it, studied it in scripture, participated in it corporately and individually, and I still don’t understand it. Not really.
Here’s what I do know—it’s a short list.
1. God doesn’t pay us for being righteous by answering our prayers. In other words, getting what we pray for is not in direct correlation to doing what God tells us to do. Somebody like Job lived righteously, but he lost everything. Daniel prayed and still got thrown into the lion’s den. Sure, he survived, but he still spent the night with the lions. Is that what he prayed for? I doubt it.
2. God doesn’t give us a formula to follow: Do steps A through F just exactly as I tell you to, then I’ll answer your prayer.
3. God will not be manipulated. He’s God. He does not move mountains at our behest! He moves them because moving them fits His plan and purposes.
4. God wants us to pray. He actually commands it, but He also promises to hear, wants us to ask without doubting Him.
5. We don’t receive from God because we don’t ask. And too often when we ask we do so with wrong motives. That’s actually what James say in chapter 4, but I recognize the truth of what he said in my own experiences.
I might also say, I also pray with impatience. I get tired asking for the same thing over and over, and I just give up. Am I to be more persistent or has God said no?
Paul asked three times that the thorn he lived with would be removed and God said no. One of the Old Testament prophets was apparently praying for God’s people, but God told him to stop because He determined to judge them for their disobedience.
But Jesus told parables about prayer, particularly about being persistent in prayer.
So how do I know if I am being persistent, faint-hearted, not willing to hear God say no, or filled with doubt?
I have this sense that prayer is more than what I make it to be.
On one hand, I don’t think I pray believing as I should. I mean, Jesus seemed to be making a huge promise in Mark 11:23-24 when He said
Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 2Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.
He also told His disciples to “seek first [His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things [food and clothing] will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).
So perhaps prayer should fit in with what we seek. If I’m seeking my own good and glory, that’s not seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness. Don’t selfish pursuits fit into James’s “wrong motives” category?
Perhaps this motives question explains why repentance should be a part of prayer. Of course, not everyone thinks it must be. After all, believers in Christ have already been forgiven our sins. But I see David sorrowing for His sin in various Psalms, and James tells us to confess our sins to one another. David also says,
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps. 13:23-24)
It seems such an approach to prayer would be perhaps the only way to have right motives.
But I come back to the basic point of prayer: what is it? Is it a way we can get what we want from God? Right there, that seems to shout, WRONG MOTIVE.
But Jesus, in response to His disciples’ request that He teach them to pray, modeled a prayer that included requests for both physical things (daily bread) and spiritual things (forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil).
So asking for things isn’t wrong in and of itself. But I can’t help but notice that the spiritual things in Jesus’s prayer outnumbered the physical ones three to one. And if you add in His opening: Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, then it’s actually a six to one ration.
But people in the Bible prayed for physical things. Hezekiah prayed that he wouldn’t die from his illness and God extended his life fifteen years. Gideon asked as a sign of God’s choice of him as the leader of the army, that dew would fall only on his fleece and nowhere else. Then the next day he asked for the opposite: dew everywhere except on his fleece. Both times, God answered. Then there was Elijah who prayed that it wouldn’t rain. God answered by sending Israel a three and a half year drought.
Were these prayers selfish? Hezekiah was clearly praying for something for himself, but Isaiah records his prayer and there is more to his desire than simply his own life extended:
It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.
“For Sheol cannot thank You,
Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.
“It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today;
A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness.
“The LORD will surely save me;
So we will play my songs on stringed instruments
All the days of our life at the house of the LORD.” (Isaiah 38:17b-20)
These physical things, then, seemed to have a spiritual motive.
But there’s something else about prayer that I know I neglect: friends talk to each other. Prayer doesn’t have to be about asking for things. It can be communication for the sake of “getting to know you better.” I think it’s good to ask God questions: I don’t understand this passage of Scripture, God. What does it mean? Or, I have this dilemma and I don’t know which to choose. What do you think, God?
I think those kinds of prayers make me mindful of God’s way—what He values, how He looks at things. That’s the real key. Prayer is not me telling God what He should do. Prayer is me getting to know the heart of God and asking Him how I fit into His plans.