Bible teacher, Haddon Robinson, tells a story about a game he used to play with his young children. He would put pennies in his hand and the kids would try to pry his fingers open to get the pennies. These few coins were a great treasure to the kids and once they got them out they celebrated by dancing around and delighting in their sought after treasure. What do you think was more important to the kids, the treasures they were getting from him; or their relationship with their father? Both are ok, Haddon would say, but not the material to the neglect of the relational. The Bible tells us that if we love the world and the things of the world, the love of God the Father is not in us. (1 John 2:15) However, a right relationship with God will result in a right relationship with the material aspects of the world. What is of primary importance to me, the blessings I can get from God, or my relationship with God Himself?
As we pay attention to what we want from our Father in heaven, we learn more about ourselves. When we pray, are we wrestling and pleading with God to give us what we feel we need or want; or are we most interested in knowing God and discerning His interest in our lives? (Jeremiah 9:24) Jesus once said that eternal life is to know God the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ. (John 17:3) What is prayer? Yes, prayer is asking God for “our daily bread” - for the things we need or desire; but the first part of the prayer, which our Lord taught to His disciples, was all about knowing God as “our Father”, sensing His infinite greatness, setting Him apart as special from all else in our personal lives, wanting to intimately know Him, and wanting His will to be done. (Matthew 6:9-10) Prayer, first of all, is about drawing near to God for fellowship and desiring His will to be done in our earthly lives. When we examine our praying, we can notice whether we are only interested in getting things from God, or whether we are most interested in knowing and loving Him; whether we are mostly self-focused, or God focused.
When Jesus prayed to God His Father, it was sometimes a struggling kind of praying; struggling to overcome what he wanted, and striving to become one with the person and purposes of God. He worked through a problem or temptation in his life, so as not to let it take Him out of oneness and fellowship with his Father. One example of this is Jesus’ mental and spiritual battle in prayer as He faced the cross. (Luke 22:39-45) He was facing the pain of excruciating physical torture, the pain of having God abandon Him, the pain of knowing that His impending death was causing His beloved followers deep sorrow and depression. He asked God to take this suffering from Him, but at the end of His time in prayer, He accepted God’s will, had peace within, and experienced great joy. This time with God in prayer renewed his vision that this unjust evil, this trial in His life, would accomplish salvation for a great number of people. He came to the point of realizing that God was working all things together for good, and that God would give Him strength to go through this trial. The great joy that resulted from His time alone with God, and from seeing life from God’s perspective, carried Him through the crisis of the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but Thine be done”. Many see this as a copout. Shouldn’t we be persevering and pressing God until He grants us our request? (Luke 18:1-8) Sometimes, that is appropriate, but is not necessarily the normal course of praying. When Jesus prayed, He was not wavering or doubting God, but rather acknowledging that God’s way is best. If what I am asking is wrong, or not for the best, God is good to override. If we persist, and God grants an unwise request, we do not experience the best results. (1 Samuel 8:4-18)
I learn about myself in my own prayer life during hard times of personal trial and suffering. Am I only interested in God getting me out of the painful situation, or am I interested in seeing it from God’s perspective? Am I only interested in getting comfort for myself, or am I seeking to gain intimacy with God as my refuge and strength? My struggle is one of learning to give up what I want and to accept what He wants. (Job 40:1-4; 42:1-6) At first I do ask God to remove my pain and sufferings, but as it turns out, what happens in my conversations with God is that I come to a place of acceptance of my condition and of finding peace in knowing that He loves me and will not let anything happen to me that is not for my good, or for the good of others. I find myself allowing God to strengthen my faith and my relationship with Him. (Lamentations 3:19-25) Praying becomes more than asking; it is a time of drawing near and enjoying God Himself. Knowing that He is with me and has my best interests at heart becomes my comfort and my staying power. Being with God is the safest place I could ever be. When I honestly express my hurt and pain during my conversational prayers with God, and seek Him as my refuge, I discover that building my relationship with God is more beneficial and helpful than getting the things I want, or think I need. If prayer never gets beyond asking for things and into the reassuring companionship of God as a loving Father, then I fall short of the meaning of prayer. It’s not that God is not interested in meeting our needs or desires; in fact He very much wants to do that for us. But if that is the main thrust of our relationship, we have missed a huge purpose of prayer. Prayer is often about being near to God so that our fears and worries are replaced by the peace of His presence and the knowledge of His goodness. This kind of praying results not so much in God’s material blessings, as in God Himself becoming our greatest treasure. (Psalm 73:25-28)
It is easy to become disappointed with God because He does not answer our sincere requests, especially when we hurt for others and pray fervently for God to help them. It can seem to us that God does nothing as a result of prayer and we wonder if he is even there. We can begin to think, “Why pray, it does no good anyway”. Doubts arise as to whether there really is a God, or if there is, does He listen and care? How we take God’s responses to our prayers can show us things about ourselves. If we come to conclusions that God is not there, or is not caring, we need to correct our thinking to be in line with God’s revelation of Himself. For us to say that it does no good to pray is countered by many instances in the Bible where God grants people’s requests. (1 Samuel 1:27; 2 Chronicles 30:20; Mark 10:51-52; Luke 18:1, 7) It is true that God may answer “No”, but that does not mean we should refrain from asking for what we need or want. It is always proper to ask God to meet our need because typically we do not know what He will do, and because the scriptures, as well as stories of modern day people, show us that He does grant requests. If He does not, it is because He has good reason. Unless we truly believe that God is most wise and good, knows each of us perfectly, and understands what is best for us, we will think that we know better than He what He should be doing to help us.
What do we learn about ourselves when what we pray for does not happen? When children come to their parents to ask for something, the parents decide what is good for the child and their answer is “yes” or “no”. Either answer is what is best for the child. Why cannot we give God the same leeway, whether we get what we pray for or not, God is good and is doing what is best for us. Like children may do, we can stomp away disappointed or angry instead of being thankful to God for His goodness and wisdom. What do we learn about ourselves? We learn what we think of God; that He is good and wise, or that He is mean, uncaring, absent, or lacking in wisdom to know what is best. We naturally think we know what is best. (Proverbs 16:2) We may need to learn that our trusting relationship with God is not yet complete. Do we have confidence that God loves us beyond all measure, so that our relationship with God is not shaken by what He does, or does not do?
Is God wrong not to grant our request? When I am called upon to help another person, there are times when, upon further reflection, I wonder if I did the right thing by helping them. Would it have been better for them if I had not helped? I do what I do with limited knowledge of what a person really needs. But God knows. We can think that we know better than God because we see how right it seems to us to be helping someone in need. To avoid thinking that we know better than God we need to be convinced that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and all that He does is right, and that He always has our best interests at heart, even though to us it may not seem so. We need not give up asking and believing that God will answer our prayers, but along with that, we should not lose the knowledge that God is all wise and good and knows what is best for us.
Do I pray effectively? At times, probably due to a preconceived idea of what praying should be like, I think I am the worst prayer in the world. I think this about myself because I learned early on, from the modeling of others, that praying through long lists is the way to pray. At prayer meetings, I would listen to church people pray through all the prayer requests and it seemed that each took a turn and prayed the same things for everyone. Although praying this way is perfectly all right, and has positive results, I always felt bored, and so have a hard time praying through long lists. Perhaps what this sadly says about me is that I do not care for the people who deserve my prayers. Furthermore, it takes such focus and concentration to stay on task, and because there are so many things to pray for, I find myself hurrying to get through. Hurriedly mentioning names in order to get through the list does not connect me to God, nor to those for whom I pray. I feel I am offering inadequate and non-caring prayers when I pray this way. We all have different personalities and I suspect that we tend to pray according to who we are. I need to learn to slow down; take more time, care more. I find that I am more deeply and sincerely engaged when I become contemplative and draw near to God, conversing with Him as a revered and caring Father. It is in that sphere that I find myself being more passionate and earnest in bringing up people’s needs, requests and concerns to God. When I pray for others in a contemplative mode, I think about them more, and also feel more connected with them. I suppose each of us finds what manner of praying fits us best. I am sure there is no one right way to pray; I think God is most concerned with our heart.
The amount of time we spend in prayer also tells us something about ourselves. Here are three possibilities. (1) Do I care? Much of praying has to do with how much we care about others. The amount of prayer I do, and those persons I take time to pray for, tells me whether or not I sincerely care about them. (2) What is my relationship with God? Certainly, persons who don’t pray must realize that they have little or no relationship with God. Either they are too busy, or don’t believe in God. (3) Do I feel unworthy? Some may not pray because they know that God does not approve of the life they are living, in which case, they may feel that they don’t deserve for God to hear them; and that could be true. Scripture does say that if I regard iniquity in my heart, or if I live an unrighteous lifestyle, God will not hear me. (Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 15:8, 29) Fortunately, this can be changed by becoming humble, admitting our faults, seeking God’s forgiveness, and turning from our wrong ways. Under those circumstances God will not turn anyone away. (Luke 18:13-14) Any person can begin to know God and develop an effective life of prayer. If you feel you have a lack of prayer, what does that say about you?
For what do we pray? Jesus taught that some things are weightier than others. (Matthew 23:23) Do we pray for things like, “God, make me more holy, or help me love that person, or give me the heart to forgive, or help me overcome my critical negative ways so that I am a more positive and encouraging person to others, or help me be a light for my co-workers so they might want to know Jesus”? Do we use prayer to wage war against our fleshly nature, and do we pray for God to raise up more workers interested in people’s salvation? (Galatians 5:13-17; Ephesians 6:18-20; Matthew 9:37-38) Our prayers can show us if we are too limited in reach.
How do we understand verses like the following? What do they show us about ourselves? The Bible says in a number of places that if we ask anything according to His will, or if we ask in faith, He hears us and will grant our requests. (Matthew 17:20; 21:22; 1 John 5:14-15) I want to understand better what verses like these mean, not so much to get my prayers answered, but to know God’s will so as to be in true harmony with Him. I think it can be tempting for people to believe that if they pray like these verses say, God will certainly have to grant their requests. Subconsciously, could there be underlying motives of “controlling” God, so God would have to give whatever is prayed for? (James 4:3) Do we secretly desire the power of the supernatural world to be at our disposal so that we can be looked upon as wonderful or great? (Acts 8:19) We pray with faith as though we are the ones who make prayer work. Then, if prayer fails to produce the expected results, we can feel that we did something wrong, or that our faith was not strong enough. Verses like these can play devastating tricks on a person’s mind and heart. There is nothing wrong with truly believing that there is a spiritual dimension of faith; that if tapped into, will produce miraculous things. But how many of us could rightly handle the feeling of having such power in our prayers? Personally, I am careful not to fall into any of the harmful modes discussed in this paragraph. In my attempts to understand these kinds of verses, I notice the Scriptural contexts, and it seems there are conditions that go with each one. Maybe some are meant only for the disciples and apostles of Jesus’ day. Maybe some are limited to knowing and praying in God’s revealed will. Praying these kinds of prayers really does work, but is it mostly in special circumstances, such as in a “spiritually darkened culture” where God wishes to do a miracle to help people come to faith in the gospel message of salvation? Does the practice of these verses reveal to us that we are trying to tell God what to do based on His promise to do it; or if it doesn’t work, that we are lacking in faith or spirituality? If so, we have not yet understood the intent of them. Perhaps a childlike faith, with no ulterior motives or doubts, would be a great way to practice these verses.
Does it really matter if I pray? Is all of life a matter of fate; whatever will be will be? Definitely not. The Bible teaches us that God does change His mind or actions based on our life decisions or persistent praying. (Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:2-3; Luke 18:1-8) We have all experienced answers to prayers that we have laid before God. Prayer does change things. God seems to have built into His universe the working of His will by means of prayer. We are co-laborers with God, for His glory.
In summary, prayer does reveal something of our character and what our relationship with God is like. It shows whether we are doubtful of God’s love, goodness, and care for us, or if we are only hopeful of a good end to our situation. It shows whether we are only using God to get what we want, or if we are interested in relating to God as an intimate friend. It shows whether we are respectful of God, or have a flippant attitude, as though He was only a distant power for us to try as a last resort. It shows whether we believe in God, or are doubtful, agnostic or atheist. It shows whether we are on good terms with God, or feel judged and condemned. It shows whether we believe prayer works and are earnest about it, or if we easily give up and despair. Insights from the way we pray can help us by serving as a corrector to improve our knowledge, our character, and our relationship with God.
If we want to learn more about how to pray, the Psalms provide a great book on prayer. Probably every feeling we experience in daily living is expressed to God somewhere in the Psalms. These prayers model for us how to praise, how to give thanks, how to honestly relate to God, and how to make all sorts of requests. The prayer that the first disciples of Jesus made to Him is still relevant for us today, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 18:1)