Think of a relationship that matters to you. A spouse, a child, a parent, a friend. How do you show that person that they matter to you? Is it by giving gifts? Spending quality time? Physical touch? (Those are just a couple of the “love languages.) What would happen if we didn’t talk at all to the people we care about?
Unfortunately, that’s how many of us approach our “personal relationship” with Jesus. We talk about prayer, we read about prayer, we even say we want to pray better. But too often, we don’t actually TALK to God.
Well, why not? Several factors keep us from praying.
1- We don’t know how to start, also known as the “but I’m not a prayer warrior” excuse. I sometimes look around and start ‘tagging’ people I know, who I respect and look up to, as ‘prayer warriors,’ and my prayer life seems to pale in comparison. People like Bishop Young Jin Cho. And my mom and dad. And that little old lady at church [any church].
2- We don’t think we’re worthy of God listening or we don’t think God really cares. Let’s be real: we all know that no matter what anyone else thinks of us, unless we’re pretty egotistical, that we are not as cool as people think we are. And if God really knows what we’re like… then why would he care what we had to say?
3- We think we can do it on our own AKA “I’m too busy to pray.” It struck me a few weeks ago that I often pray about an issue after I’ve exhausted all of the other options I see, including to hashing it out with people I care about. Jesus started just about every day we see chronicled by going off on his own to pray– he prayed before, during, and after the situation… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
4- We don’t actually believe prayer works. There doesn’t seem to be a point. This is usually the case when we prayed about something, whether it’s somewhat trivial like passing a test or not having the cop see us speeding to something more serious like the health of a loved one, and we didn’t get what we wanted. If we’re not going to change God’s mind from that perspective, then why pray in the first place?
5-We’re too busy to stop and talk to God. Even though we have some inkling that we come to church and participate, that we think something worthy of our attention happens here, we don’t really think that developing a conversation with the creator of the universe is that big of a deal. (Some of you are thinking I’m lost in sarcasm, but I’m serious, this is a regularly given reason for why people don’t pray!)
So, what would it look like if we REALLY believed in prayer? What would it look like if we threw all of that information in the spin cycle, and pulled it out in a different order?
I think that our attitudes might change, and our expectations. We’d probably carry less of our pain and suffering, because we’d given it over to God. And ultimately, our outlook on the world would probably be different.
But why do we treat prayer like it’s some kind of secret code? We know what real prayer looks like. We know people who have experienced prayer’s impact, even seen it ourselves. We know that there are example after example of how to pray in the Bible.
Consider Jesus’ prayer life. This is a guy who got up early in the morning over and over again to go and spend time with God. He WANTED to talk to God. He WANTED to know what God thought and what God wanted and what God would do.
But instead of praying just as a method of last resort, he prayed all of the time. And this prayer, not his last, but maybe his greatest prayer, from John 17, shows us a lot about what Jesus thought about prayer. (And maybe what we should, too.)
Jesus addresses God intimately, jumping right in to a conversation that is already going on. There is no fronting, no long laundry list of superlatives. Jesus calls God his father, often using the colloquial “daddy,” and launches into the conversation.
Jesus asks that God would be empowered IN Jesus. Jesus definitely wants God to show up and show off. He’s obviously filled with an expectation that God will move in Jesus’ life and that it will be abundantly obvious to everyone.
Jesus wants God to show up and show off in his life SO THAT OTHERS WILL SEE GOD’S glory. It’s not about Jesus, even in the middle of his prayer, even as he’s approaching the end of his earthly ministry. Does he know that? (Depends how you interpret his being fully God and fully human.) I don’t think it matters. That’s how Jesus has prayed every time.
Mark 14:36 puts it this way: “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Matthew 26 even emphasizes that Jesus is struggling with this so mightily, the way that the rest of his ministry would play out, that he prayed it twice! Luke takes this prayer of Jesus so intensely in Luke 22, that he says Jesus’ sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood. Jesus isn’t looking forward to what’s about to happen but he still keeps putting himself in the middle of God’s will. In John, Jesus focuses on all of the ways that God has shown up already. How Jesus has been obedient and used by God, and how he wants God to do it again!
Seriously, if we are going to pray, can we be that bold? Can we put out there what we really, really hope for- healing of a loved one, peace from the struggle, alleviation of our financial woes- and then step back to say, “your will be done?” Do we “put in work” when we pray? Do we get sweaty, worked up, fired up, when we pray, or do we go about it nonchalantly, like we don’t really expect anything to happen? Jesus is WORKING.
That’s hard core prayer. But Jesus isn’t done yet.
Instead of turning inward, dealing with his internal struggle, Jesus prays for his disciples. The first twelve disciples of Jesus are specifically placed in God’s presence, as God asks for them to be protected from others and from evil, to unify them together, and to “sanctify,” or purify, them in God’s word. Then Jesus prays for all who will believe, both present and future. He asks that they would be one just like the Father and the Son are one. And this unity, Jesus prays, will show the world that the Father sent Jesus and that God loves Jesus’ followers.
There’s a laser like focus there: Jesus’ last will and testament is that God would use Jesus’ life to unify the body of believers and make them holy. In the midst of his struggle, Jesus spends the time praying for others. Is that how we pray?
Fast forward to the cross, and Jesus talks to God. In Matthew 27, he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke 23:34, Jesus says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” In the first, he’s quoting Scripture, but he’s also expressing the divide between he and the Father, in the hour of his death. Jesus acknowledges that the death experience isn’t great- that this is the loneliest place he’s ever been. In the second, he’s still back at it, forgiving the very people who are putting him through this, even to the death.
In John 14:6, Jesus told his disciples that “no one comes to the Father except through me.” People don’t like it because it seems like Jesus was excluding people there, that he was saying that not everyone would be considered by God. But what if Jesus was including people? What if Jesus was right, and none of us were really acceptable to God without Jesus?
[Digging a little deeper here, no, really, really deep: We can argue and critique what is sin and what’s not, but here’s the thing: God is pure, absolute goodness. And even the best of us has something that isn’t good. (C’mon, I’m not asking for examples, but be realistic!) That little bit (or big bit, for those of us being realistic) keeps us from being able to handle God’s purity, God’s holiness. Why else would Jesus pray that God would see us through him [Jesus]? He knew God the Father needed to see us through God’s Jesus lens, to make us appear like Jesus to God.]
Do we get it yet? Somehow, it carries more punch when it’s advice and modeling coming from a guy who said, “If there’s another way, that I not die here, and yet, you know best,” who later died and rose again. Jesus exampled that prayer was selfless. That it was conversational. That it was necessary work to pursue the life of God. That it was life-giving. That prayer wasn’t just asking for what we wanted, but acknowledging that God had a plan for our lives and that we would be better off if we lived like that.
I wonder what it would look like if we recognized those truths about prayer. What would change?
Would we see other people differently, if we recognized that praying for them put them in the presence of God?
Would we see how important prayer is to God and to us for relationship, and by correlation, how important we are to God?
I want to do a study to prove that prayer works. But the thing is, prayer is a pretty hard thing to find a mathematical equation for, like faith. Every once and awhile, a study like this presents itself:
A group of physicians used in double-blind “drug” studies of the efficacy of Christian prayer on healing. Patients from the San Francisco General Medical Center were randomly divided into placebo and test groups. Patients in the test group were prayed for by Christians; the placebo group received no prayer. There were no statistical differences between the placebo and the prayer groups beforeprayer was initiated. The results demonstrated that patients who were prayed for suffered “less congestive heart failure, required less diuretic and antibiotic therapy, had fewer episodes of pneumonia, had fewer cardiac arrests, and were less frequently intubated and ventilated.”
But from what we’ve looked at today, is prayer simply defined as feeling better or getting what we want? I think that’s selling it short, and quite possibly, failing to see the full potency of faithful prayer.
I wonder, if the prayer we say more often than not, our Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6, wouldn’t come alive if we saw the words through Jesus’ prayer focus, if we recognized how intimate this prayer was to Jesus.
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”
The same elements are here, with different words, but what if we wrote it in our own words? Here are mine.
Our now and forever parent,
We honor your name by how we live,
We long to do your will now and in the future,
So that heaven would come to earth.
Give us what we need to live each day,
And forgive our mistakes against you and each other,
As we forgive those who have hurt us too.
Keep us away from things that would cause us to sin,
And protect us from the things that would do us harm.
I hope you’ll consider as we close in on the last weeks before Easter that Jesus wants us to pray. Not because it’s the ‘rule’ or the ‘expectation,’ but because he knows we need it. We need to know God’s will. We need to know how to live. We need to learn how to forgive.
Maybe prayer isn’t a math equation; maybe it’s a dance. Maybe prayer is the Biblical version of the tango, two hearts learning to beat as one. Maybe it’s the living water that Jesus was talking about. Maybe it’s the synchronization of our life with God’s will, like setting our clocks to Daylight Savings Time. Maybe it’s learning to play the right notes that the composer has set out for the greatest song in the world.
Whatever analogy works for you, it seems like this prayer thing, it’s pretty essential to life.