If there’s a spiritual topic my friends and I discuss the most, it’s prayer. What’s the purpose and what does Scripture say about it?
A couple girlfriends and I shed a few tears on the topic over hand-brewed coffee and breakfast at Kitchen No. 324 just this month.
I’ve had several friends email or call me to discuss the issue, and this semester I’ve been meeting with a college student who is struggling with prayer’s purpose as she watches a friend’s health decline slowly and painfully.
For some religions, prayer is meditation. A centering of our mind upon a single thought…or emptying our mind of all thoughts entirely. Liturgical congregations are more apt to “pray the hours,” or observe several regular moments of focused daily prayer. Prayer, in this way, is a discipline; intentional and habitual. These are sacred pauses meant to re-focus our mind on spiritual things. A watch alarm beeps, pulling us out from a stressful moment to “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2). I love that. But this type of prayer can also become unfeeling and dutiful, lacking any real devotion to the Recipient.
In southern Protestant churches like the Baptist ones I’ve attended the past…oh, fifteen years or so…prayer seems to be used more as a vehicle of petition or requesting. We even use that term in Sunday school classes and small group settings: “Does anyone have any prayer requests?” We are seeking out the needs of the community around us, then offering those requests to God. Unfortunately this interchange can oftentimes become an opportunity for gossip, complaining, or “one-upping” each others’ trials, and we spend more time talking about the needs/requests than we do actually talking to God about them. Prayer in this sense is more like a help hotline or a Christmas list for Santa, I mean, God.
I’ve established in previous posts a few of my thoughts on the purpose of prayer:
1) Communication with and obedience to God See post: Even If He Does Not…
2) To intercede for others See post: Fourteen Thousand Sheep
3) To change us, not our circumstances See post: Bow Your Head
Check out my links to the posts above and I think you’ll get a more comprehensive idea of what the Lord’s been teaching me about prayer.
But I’m still left with more questions than answers concerning prayer and I’d like to share them with you here:
If prayer’s purpose is communication with God, then how can general communication, like the kind we encounter with our spouse or friends be “answered” or “unanswered?” It’s simply shared. Requests are “answered.”
Why does he answer some peoples’ prayers and not others?
Personal story: I can’t tell you how many moments Joey and I (and our family and friends and many of you) have spent in prayer for Finn’s health. Even before he was born. God did not “answer” our prayer of complete healing and normalcy. He has answered many specific, miraculous prayers along the way, but Finn was born with Spina Bifida and it will always affect his life and ours in a very real and oftentimes painful way. Nevertheless, I won’t stop asking Him.
A friend was recently struggling with her daughter’s delayed mobility and missed milestones. She came to me for encouragement, wisdom and prayer. I was honored to pray for her and selfishly felt a little less “alone” because another believing momma was struggling like I am. Her child’s health was confusing and we were pleading to God for healing…together. I was elated to hear that after months of testing, her daughter’s diagnosis was normal and healthy, just delayed. Our prayers were answered! Victory. But as soon as I felt thankfulness to God for healing her, lies crept into the dark corners of my heart. Satan convinced me that she had more faith than I did. That’s why her daughter is healthy and my son is not. Her friends and family “claimed victory” and my clan just didn’t get it right. We must not have drank the right spiritual cocktail or sprinkled the appropriate amount of faith into our prayers. Lies. Lies. Lies.
Friends, our prayers are not opportunities to manipulate God into getting what we want or what we think we deserve. He loves us and I believe He wants to answer my prayers just as much as He did for my dear friend. I’m not sure why Finn is in a wheelchair, but I have come to realize that I will never understand.
And honestly, no answer would even suffice anyway. He just is. And God is still good.
So is there “power in prayer,” as my mom’s embroidered pillow tells me? What does Scripture say about this? The Gospels are riddled with verses about asking (requesting) and receiving. “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). I’m stumped here.
Why does the hashtag ” #prayerworks ” bother me? It sounds like an advertisement for cleaning supplies on QVC.
Does God care about petty prayers like sports victories for our kids? Shouldn’t we be praying more about the process of our children learning how to lose with integrity and win with grace? Or does He care when I ask Him to please hold off on the rain for my upcoming garage sale? Do we “waste” our prayers in this way? Is that possible?
Jesus tells us to pray like He did. He gave us a few examples:
Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV) The Lord’s Prayer
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”
And there’s the example of His prayer in the Garden before His death:
Matthew 26:36-56 (ESV)
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here…” and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” [Disciples are sleeping when Jesus returns to them] 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” [Disciples are found sleeping again] 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.
Jesus teaches us that prayer is for “hallowing,” or praising God for his holiness, for requesting daily needs, for forgiveness, protection from sin, and for deliverance. And in the Garden, it’s for pleading with God about what we desire–not once, but THREE times. Jesus went to the cross despite His sobbing bequests to His Father, but He still asked. He still communed with His Lord in a real and intimate way.
So what are your thoughts on prayer? I’m hoping many of you will comment on this post and let me know what you think. One thing is certain: prayer is important for the life of a believer. Paramount, maybe. We must do it. But why and how? Help! Thanks for listening and sharing.