“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”
― Mother Teresa
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
― Søren Kierkegaard
No act is as fundamental to Christian life and yet as prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as prayer. Throughout the Scriptures, Christians are enjoined to “watch and pray,” to “pray always and not faint” and to “pray without ceasing.” It is no overstatement to describe prayer as the central observance of Christianity. Yet, it seems that there is much difference of opinion as to what it is or how it is to be practiced. Some Christians see prayer as a ritual, while for some others, it is a liturgical requirement. For some, prayer is the delivery of a shopping list to God, who is supposedly duty-bound to grant us our every whimsical wish and desire.
Prayer is not a get-out-of-jail card to be played only in the direst of circumstances. Prayer is simply communion with God. It is the very fulcrum of our relationship with the creator. The Lord’s Prayer, which Christ taught to his disciples, is not merely something to be recited. It lays down the framework of the relationship that we have with God. It enunciates the themes of our journey of faith – the fatherhood of God, our place as his children, the importance of his kingdom and his will, our reliance on him for daily spiritual and material sustenance, the breadth of his mercy which we can bask in, the need to extend the similar forbearance to our fellow beings; and his guidance and protection. To live prayerfully is to live in constant awareness and realization of these truths. It is to live in the awareness of God’s presence.
The prayerful life, therefore, is not one in which prayer is the key to enter God’s presence but the very consciousness that God is always present and our constant engagement with that presence. These days, prayer is often depicted as a discipline or as a feat of endurance, one in which “adepts” are praised as being “very spiritual” for being able to pray for a given number of hours nonstop. In some of our congregations, we even celebrate those who are considered spiritual elite as “prayer warriors.” In so doing, prayer is made to seem like a task that only “spiritually mature generals” can perform. This has given rise to the phenomenon of prayer contractors whereby Christians unsure of their spiritual standing look for pastors to pray for them for every conceivable problem.
The genius of Christianity is that it rends the veil separating us from God. In and through Christ, we have been given direct access to the father. A son or a daughter requires no intermediary to talk with his or her father. Yet, by making prayer seem like a specialized task, many Christians lack the confidence to enjoy the direct communion with God that is theirs by right. Too many pastors, have become intermediaries, unnecessarily impeding the fellowship that God seeks to enjoy with his children.
The right to speak to and hear from God is one of the basic rights of the Christian. Like every other relationship, communication is the heart of our fellowship with God. It cannot be outsourced or delegated to another person. We cannot maintain an authentic relationship with God that is conducted vicariously through pastors or prayer warriors. Much is made of prayer as a means for Christians to tell God what they want him to do. Little is said of what God wants done. The equally valid aspect of hearing God is not given as much attention as speaking to him. Yet, in order for prayer to be truly a communication, it must be a two-way transmission.
Prayer is not a monologue but a dialogue between heaven and earth. The challenge of prayer is not so much us talking to God as it is learning to listen and to perceive his response. With prayer, come discernment, divine direction, spiritual clarity and the ability to perceive the agenda of heaven. This is important to note, because prayer is so often taught as a means of getting God to rubberstamp our agenda. As A.W. Tozer observed, “Too many praying persons seek to use prayer as a means to ends that are not wholly pure. Prayer is often conceived to be little more than a technique for self-advancement, a heavenly method of achieving earthly success.” Yet, the key to a fulfilling prayer life is to anchor it to God’s will. “To pray effectively,” Tozer wrote, “we must want what God wants – that and only that is to pray in the will of God.”
Prayer should also not be seen as an excuse for not thinking or working. The great preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, “God Himself cannot do some things unless men think. He never blazons His truth on the sky that men may find it without seeking. Only when men gird the loins of their minds and steadfastly give themselves to intellectual toil, will God reveal to them the truth, even about the physical world.
Just as God has left some things subject to man’s thinking and working, he has also left some things contingent on man’s praying. Prayer is how we cooperate with God to see his will established on earth.