…Continued from earlier.
Another way we go wrong when it comes to prayer is when we view it solely as a means to an end. Now, prayer certainly can be a means that accomplishes an end in that we pray with an expectation God will hear and answer. But when seeking an answer or drawing closer to God though prayer as a spiritual discipline, both of which are good and Biblical reasons to pray, becomes the default all the time, we’re missing something. That something is what Jesus taught us by His example of prayer. He is God. When He was here, did He really have the same kinds of needs we do? In His humanity, some. Did He need to confess sin and seek reconciliation as we so often do? No. I would argue that much of the time Jesus spent in prayer with His Father was Jesus just “being” with the Father. Prayer for us needs to be an end, not just a means. Sometimes we just need to be with God. Be honest with Him. Talk to Him like a child to a Father. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t pray for anyone. Just share what’s on your heart and then listen. Be still and learn to hear the voice of God. It’s hard! I know. I’ve tried, and I usually last about five minutes.
So, why we should pray for others, and what power does prayer truly possess? I mentioned already that I think prayer serves two main functions – to humble us and conform our will to God’s will – but there are some others as well. As it relates to others, I think it really matters. When we tell someone we’re praying for them, it’s a lot more encouraging than saying “I’ll be thinking about you.” What does my thinking about someone’s problem really do other than maybe make them feel good knowing they are cared for? But to be interceding on their behalf to the God of the Universe? That’s a different story. But, what happens when I pray for someone and the prayer seems unanswered or not answered in the way we wanted? Did my prayer fail? Does God not care? Is God unable to answer? I’d argue that sometimes we don’t tell people we’ll pray for them because we’re afraid.
James sheds some light on that when he says that we should say, “If the Lord wills we will do this or that.” Is that a lack of faith to give God, and prayer, an “out” if things don’t go our way? I say no. It’s wise and Biblical to pray “If the Lord wills” or “Not my will, but thine be done.” What we have to do is set expectations and frame the narrative of our offer of prayer by saying that we’ll pray specifically for such and such a thing, but that we’ll also pray for the strength and grace to accept God’s will, whatever it may be. That’s not a faithless prayer, as some might contend. Rather, it’s a prayer that acknowledges that just because God can, does not mean He will. Only He knows His ultimate plan and what’s best for us, even when it includes suffering. We should pray that people will see the purpose behind the suffering, or at least learn to trust that God has a reason and a plan. If we can’t trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God, we’re hopeless and prayer is more than a waste of time – it’s a cruel joke. But, since God is both good and sovereign, the deficiency is always with us and our lack of faith and/or understanding of the situation.
It really comes down to faith. The Bible says to pray, so we do. The Bible says there is power in prayer, so we believe it. The Bible tells us/shows us to pray for others, so we do. The Bible tells us God hears our prayers, but that sometimes they are not answered in the way or in the time we want for a variety of reasons (Daniel and Zechariah). When we pray for something and it happens, we are reminded and encouraged that God hears and answers and our faith is strengthened. When we pray and don’t get the answer we want, our faith is challenged; but if we persevere even when it doesn’t make sense, our faith is strengthened. When we hear someone has been praying for us, we are reminded of the love and unity we share in Christ and our faith is strengthened.
The bottom line is that no matter what happens when we pray, our faith can be strengthened if we have the right perspective. It’s really hard to have that perspective sometimes, especially in times of intense pain and suffering; but that’s when we need to pray and pour our hearts out to the Lord that much more. It’s impossible for an unbeliever to understand any of this because it takes spiritual eyes to see the purpose and power of prayer.
I know I didn’t give a “nailed it!” answer, and I don’t know if we’ll ever find one this side of heaven. I still don’t fully understand prayer, nor do most people. If someone has figured it out completely and written a book about it, I have not heard of it. The fact there are so many books and opinions on the topic shows that it’s fraught with difficulty, so be encouraged if you struggle with prayer. You’re not alone in your quest to grasp the meaning of this thing we’re taught to do as a primary spiritual discipline.