When someone is going through a hard time, I encourage them to pray. I stand by that advice as God can far better care for a person than I can with any words of pastoral care. I believe we must go to God in prayer at all times but especially when life gets difficult. However, when I do this I regularly get blank looks. The reason is that I am making an assumption that people have a full understanding of prayer. I can understand this confusion. I grew up in a liturgical church in which prayers were something that we read and were either straight from the Bible or were written a century or two back. So if I am going to ask you to pray, it is only fair that I define for you what I mean by prayer. In fact I will do better than that, I will let Jesus explain it for us from a selection of passages from the Gospel of Matthew. We will start with the basic idea that prayer is communication between a person and God and then let Jesus fill in the rest.
To God Not to People
I still remember the first time I was asked to pray out loud. I was asked by the pastor to say grace for the meal that was taking place after some church event. You would think that grace would be a piece of cake. All five of my children have said grace before a meal at some point and Logan has even prayed at men’s breakfast. The only problem was that saying grace was not something that I had grown up with. Here I was asked to pray out loud in front of the pastor and a bunch of church people that I did not really know that well. My fear was about whether or not I would say the right things and how people would respond. Would I impress them? To be honest, God was the last thing on my mind. I was focused on how my prayer would be heard by others. Yet Jesus teaches us that we should not pray to impress people. Do you realize that there are prayers that have been prayed by well dressed church people that have used the most beautiful words and images and have had perfect diction and tone and yet were considered ugly by God? It is not that God hates good prayers but that he hates good prayers that are good only because people want to impress others. So when you pray, don’t worry about how you sound to others. Focus on the one you are praying to: God.
Prayer is Not Magic
I remember a time of prayer that we had in seminary. I was coming to a Baptist seminary from a different denomination. The students would sometimes have informal times of prayer. After one prayer time, I was asked by another student why I used God’s name so much in my prayer. I had not thought of it but I was doing it only because of the tradition that I belonged to at the time, that is how you did it. Why? I don’t know but perhaps at some point in the past someone thought that it helped get our prayers heard. Jesus warns us about repetition. This is not a warning about a preferred style but a warning about using this repetition as a way to manipulate God. Do you realize that you do not have to say “in Jesus’ name” or “amen” to get a prayer heard? They are good things to include but we have to remember prayer is not magic. What is magic? Magic is the use of words and phrases to manipulate the god to get what you want. Precision in the incantations was essential. Instead of healing your son’s broken leg, you did not want to accidentally turn him into a newt. But that is not what prayer is. Prayer is communication between individuals who are in relationship such as a child to a father. I listen to what my children say no matter how they say it. While I hope they say please, I will always meet their needs and certain things they will never get no matter how often they say please. The same is true with God. God is someone not to be manipulated but to be communicated with.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you made a mistake in prayer? What if you said the wrong thing? Whether you had the wrong information or just made a mistake? What would happen if you prayed that someone would be healed of the flu when in fact they had a cold? Would God be confused because the mentioned ailment was not found in the body? Prayer is not about informing God. We are not God’s ground troops sending him information in heaven. God does not rely upon our intelligence reports to know where to send his heaven support. People often struggle with what to say to God. There is no need to feel that kind of pressure. There are times I pray for the church and I feel like what I need to do is figure out the solution and then ask God to make it happen. Then I remember, God does not need my information. He knows what I need, what my family needs, what the church needs before I even ask. One of my favorite verses is this: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 ESV)
Prayer and Life
Some people think of prayer as completely separate from the rest of their life. Prayer is spiritual while everything else is physical and therefore something radically different. An extreme example of this spiritual-physical distinction was an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism. One version saw no reason not to indulge in drinking and sexual indulgence because that could affect only the body and not the spirit. Jesus teaches that how we pray should be closely connected with how we live. If we pray for forgiveness, which we should, we should also be prepared to actually forgive the people in our life. But the principle is bigger than just forgiveness. We must be ready to put feet to our own prayers. When Emma’s mother was pregnant with Emma, I told Amanda that I was not prepared to bring another child into our home. But the least I could do was to pray for the unborn child. While I was praying that Emma would end up with the right family, I felt God speak to me about our family being the right family. Now I could not imagine Emma not being in our family. Let your prayer life spill over into other areas of your life.
As a new Christian, I went on a mission trip. I was shocked when one of our team members refused to participate in our daily prayer for God’s guidance and strength. Her reason was that she did not believe in praying more than once for something. To me, praying only once is not natural, but more than that, it is not biblical. There are a number of passages that teach persistence in prayer. The one I will focus on is a story where Jesus encounters a foreign woman who has a sick child. The mother asks Jesus to heal her child. Jesus tells her no, as he was sent only to the people of Israel. Not only does he say no, but his response compares her to a dog. Not a very pastoral thing to do. If I did that to any of you, you would be quick to walk away. But for this woman, the need of her child was greater than the sensitivity of her pride. She responded by saying even dogs get the children’s leftover crumbs. A humiliating prayer. But Jesus healed the child. What does this teach us? Keep praying. Is God’s delay offensive to you? Discouraging? Sorry, but keep praying. Again, this is not magic. We can not manipulate God into giving us something by praying a certain amount of times. But a central part of prayer is a deep desire to see something happen. That can be reflected in how often we pray. I prayed for a decade that my father would accept Christ. Truth be told, I gave up hope. But I continued to pray. He accepted Christ on his death bed. Not the way I wanted it, but God answered my prayer in his way. Keep praying.
We have not even come close to providing all the answers for the nature of prayer. But the teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Matthew have given a taste, even if some of that is telling us what prayer is not. Prayer is not a speech designed to impress people. Prayer is not magic that can be used to manipulate God. Prayer is not providing information for God. Prayer is something that is closely connected to the rest of our life. And prayer is something that we need to be stubborn with. Understanding prayer is a life long journey but this gives us something to start with.