1.) We are told to pray.
It is an act of obedience. (Matt. 6:9) Jesus even told us how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer was given as a model…a blueprint…for all prayer. It just dawned on me that it begins and ends with praise. The words of praise form parentheses around the words of petition. In other words, our requests for forgiveness, protection, and daily needs are made within the context of an acknowledgement of God’s attributes and character. We are not praying to capricious idols like Zeus or Aphrodite, who meddle in human affairs for their own amusement. We address the Holy King of Kings who possesses all glory and all power… “forever and ever.” We are actually told to “pray without ceasing” (a topic for another day) because “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results.” (James 5:16)
2.) Prayer changes circumstances or us.
a.) There are instances thoughout the Bible where prayer is said “to change God’s mind,”* although we could spend endless hours debating what that actually means. If He is omniscient, then He knew from before time that the prayers would be prayed. In His great ‘courtesy,’ as the Medievals called it, He deigned that these prayers would be a vehicle through which His ultimate purposes would be accomplished. He has graciously allowed humankind to participate in the pattern of history. Weymayer states: “…some may wonder how it is that Scripture can teach both that God providentially brings all things to pass in conformity with His eternal purpose and that the prayers of men can have a significant affect in the unfolding of world history. The seeming contradiction between these two truths vanishes, however, when one realizes that “the same God who has decreed the end has also decreed that His end shall be reached through His appointed means, and one of these is prayer” (The Sovereignty of God, 167).”
Because God loves us, and desires to be in relationship with us above all else, He has (mysteriously) deemed that we have a part to play in the plot of history. We are not puppets. God is all-powerful, yet He longs to incorporate His children (and heirs) into His business.
This is an extremely weak example, but the best I can come up with in a time crunch:
Say I want to take James to the park. He is busy playing with Thomas the Train, and won’t come when I call him. He thinks he doesn’t want to do what Mimi wants him to do, even though Mimi’s plan is for his good. He stalls, he runs away, he hides…as I often do when I sense that God is calling me to do something new. I don’t want to drag James kicking and screaming to the park. I want him to be on the same page I’m on…I want his will to be the same as mine. I want him to be excited about it. I want him to trust me that it’s going to be fun. I know what he likes. I know he loves the park. I am taking him there for his benefit. I want him not only to agree with me about the park, I want him to ask me to take him there. And I’d like a little gratitude, too. Eventually, James is persuaded by my description of all the fun things we could do at the park. In the end, he even says “Pease Mimi! Wet’s go to de park!” and gets in his stroller. Then we go. I am delighted. I was waiting for him to be in accord with my will, and to ask me to fulfill it. His hesitation delayed his joy. (So does mine sometimes.)
(* For example, Ex. 32:14)
b.) Prayer changes me. Spending time with God softens me, humbles me, and makes me able to listen. The “still, small voice” becomes louder and clearer the more I learn to listen well. All it takes is time. I find that I don’t insist on my own way as often when I spend quality time alone with God. This is not something I have to force myself to do. It is a delight. So even if the circumstances I’m praying about don’t change, my attitude does.
3.) Jesus prayed.
If we are to be “imitators of Christ,” then we must follow the example he set. Jesus was always sneaking away to be alone with his Father. He prayed both publicly and privately, but it seems apparent that he valued the one-on-one time above all else. It was like oxygen to him.
But here’s the shocker: Even Jesus, “being of the same substance as the Father, very God of very God,” got a “NO.”
Luke 22:44 says he sweated blood when he beseeched the Father to “let this cup pass from me.” His humanity cried out against suffering. But, immediately, he acquiesced to God’s authority, “...not my will, but yours.”
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion… Blessed are all who wait for him... How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you.”
But what if the answer is “No”? There is one “No” that is particularly hard to understand and bear. If God is gracious and compassionate, as the Psalmist says, then why does He allow the ultimate suffering of separation by death?
Kelly Edens wrote, “God knows the human heart because He created it. He knows how fragile it is, how quickly it can harden and above all, how it needs to be loved. But real love does not mean a perpetual "yes". When it comes to prayer, there are three answers: yes, no and wait…The hardest "no" to understand is in the death of a loved one. You want them to remain on earth with you, to have one more day to love them, but God takes them anyway. No amount of bribery, promises, or deals can keep your loved one tied to earth. But does this answer mean you will never see them again? Only if you don't intend to follow them to heaven. If you really think about it, maybe God is saying "no" to your loved one's suffering, pain and illness instead of your request for them to linger.”
Nothing on earth hurts like the loss of one you love. Thankfully, at this point I have not experienced the loss of a child. Although I cannot imagine exactly what that must be like, I assume that it’s the worst hurt there is. Unbearably painful. Devastating.
In grappling with all of these questions about the purpose of prayer, I turned to a cadre of close friends (that I look upon as “spiritual mothers”) for their insight. One shared this story with me:
“Bottom line, when I believe in Christ, God Himself is our very great reward. What could be greater than that! He gives me Himself as the answer for all my prayers.
This picture comes to mind: 1980...I'm expecting our 3rd child. I'm in an intense Bible study on the Book of Revelation. I'm walking and talking with the Lord intimately. I'm praying for the well-being of my unborn baby. I'm in the arms of God with Him hugging me tightly when our little daughter is born with such a birth defect that she dies that day. I turn and bury my face into the chest of the Lord as He is right there hugging me. I trust Him, as I know our baby girl is with Him. I grieve and I think of what could have been, but all the while He's hugging me and telling me, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
I think that's the way my prayers were answered. He gave me Himself.”
Since Katherine’s AVM rupture, I’ve been receiving Joni Eareckson Tada’s daily devotionals. If anyone knows about suffering, it is Joni. For those unfamiliar with her, she is the writer and artist who was left a quadriplegic by a teenage diving accident. She reached out to Katherine in the early days, and has been an amazing encourager and example of grace under fire. Many days, her short devotion “just happens” to speak directly to my immediate circumstances. The other day, her words pierced my heart: “If we do not cling to God through the worst life offers, we will misread him entirely and grow to mistrust and even despise him.”
That is what my friend Lynn did. She clung to God when her heart was breaking. He held her in His loving arms, when she could not hold her baby girl in hers.
I remember the first time Lynn told me her story. Though tears were shining in her eyes, she emanated peace, and even joy. She and her husband had two boys, and they’d prayed for a little girl. She told me, “God gave me the desire of my heart…a little girl. But she gets to grow up in heaven.”
I have thought about that over the years. Lynn's daughter has never known heartbreak. She has never faced rejection or fear or sickness or depression. She has never been the victim of violence or gossip. She didn’t have to deal with Mean Girls in the 7th grade. She has never experienced peer pressure or temptation. She has never suffered loss. She has never sinned. She has never known anything but exquisite joy. And her family will spend eternity with her.
Because her parents know the character of God to be All Loving, they accepted His “no” as somehow coming out of that love. They trust Him. They believe that “all things work together for good for those who love Him.” (And they do love Him.)
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know why God said “yes” to the prayers for Katherine’s life, while He says “no” to others. There are things that cannot be known. There are mysteries that will not be solved until Heaven.
But we can come to know God himself.
That is what prayer is to me.
Prayer is a caress.
It is most beautiful when it is beyond words. It is communion. It is consummation. It is a ravishing.
It is the purest form of love. It is transcendent. It is sparkling light and floods of thrilling, roaring, living water pouring out of the heart of God into mine. Liquid delight…cool fire and fiery ice.
Prayer is losing myself in Him in order to find my best, true self. It is a joining of hearts, minds, and wills.
If you haven’t yet experienced prayer in this way, know that “if you seek (and keep on seeking), you will find.”
We are told to seek the greater gifts. (I Cor. 12:31)
For “if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” (Matt. 7:11)
The one request that we will always receive is more of Him.
That is a prayer that is always answered “Yes!”
He is enough.