I’ve used this before – some of you will groan – but it always presents me with a look at how prayer must look to God.
A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”
“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”
A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”
“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”
A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”
“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”
All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room, he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”
“Yes, you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. But you never got in.”
Prayer is a funny thing, isn’t it? It’s hard sometimes to know what exactly it’s doing and what kind of impact it has. I admit that I never feel like I pray enough, but lately, my attitude about prayer – and my discipline for it has been changing.
So, why don’t we pray sometimes, enough, or ever? Maybe it’s because sometimes we’re too busy and too lazy to pray. Because sometimes we’ve been told that we should do it- overcome all of our obstacles – on our own, that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Because sometimes we don’t get the answers to prayer that we want or hope for. Because sometimes we think that God might not really care about the things that matter to us.
Sometimes, we believe that God only cares about the big stuff.
I think we couldn’t be more wrong. But that’s my opinion. I wanted to get to the bottom of what the Bible really says about prayer, to see what we might piece together to figure out what prayer is supposed to mean for our lives.
Check out these scriptures, and consider what they mean, what God is saying to all of us, and what God is saying to you.
The first “prayer” I could find in the Bible – note, I’m not counting the conversations that God and Adam have together “vocally” as they’re presented as “prayer” per se – was in Genesis 4:26. It’s ‘broader,’ not specific:
Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.
We don’t know what caused this or why they thought to do it, but at this point, as people were spreading out through the Earth, some of them recognized that there was a higher power, that they should call out to.
A little while later, we discover a man named Enoch who had things in the right order – it says that he “walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 5:23) and that God took him away. Again, what did prayer look like here? No matter what it did, Enoch’s life pleased God so he was brought up to heaven sans death. Sounds like a substantial prayer life.
Later, in Abraham’s story – now, here’s a guy who talked to God quite a bit – it states that “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again” (Genesis 20:17). Here’s a direct correlation between a person praying and God healing from the Old Testament. It seems like Abraham’s involvement in conversation with God had a profound effect on Abimlek’s family!
Peppered throughout the Old Testament are examples of people who prayed for different things and received different kinds of results. But the ‘man after God’s own heart,’ David, prayed in ways that show it wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t necessarily flowers and rainbows all of the time. When David prayed it was usually less about a checklist and more about a state of mind.
In David, we see a guy who is in the middle of it quite a bit. He’s running from his best friend’s father, King Saul, or facing down the Philistine giant, Goliath; he’s wrestling with an unhappy wife, Michal, or fleeing God’s wrath when he’s been unfaithful with Bathsheba. He is not living a pleasant, calm, day-to-day situation. Yet, when he prays, he finds a resting place.
This is one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 40, but there are so many more times listed in the chronology of David’s narrative from I and II Samuel that you can explore. In Psalm 40, David writes:
I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us.
I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart. Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord; may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me. Be pleased to save me, Lord; come quickly, Lord, to help me.
May the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.
David is pretty direct here – he’s in trouble, and he needs God’s help. He hasn’t been perfect or even good, but he knows his whole salvation rests in God’s power. It’s one of those situations I sometimes marvel at: even when he’s done wrong, David’s first response is to call on God. More often than not, it seems that when we do wrong individually or corporally, our first reaction is to try to hide our guilt or make excuses.
Here, in the Old Testament before Jesus, we have an expectation by David that God is always listening – even when we’re sinful. David believed we should call on God all of the time – especially when we were in the wrong.
So, fast forward a few hundred years. What did the New Testament say about praying?
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells The Parable of the Persistent Widow to illustrate the way in which we should pray without ever giving up. Here, it’s specifically about injustice being done to those who follow God, but it’s a reminder that we’re supposed to “keep at” prayer even if we’re not receiving the answers that we want. Jesus urged us to be persistent in prayer, even when we didn’t hear an answer … or get the answer we wanted.
In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus addresses the kinds of response that we should expect to prayer, apparently again addressing the kinds of concerns people had about what God wanted to hear in prayer, or when God wanted to hear from them: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
Bread and fish were basic building blocks of the diet, they were day-to-day parts of what a son or a daughter, or anyone, would have needed to eat. Jesus points out that while there might be other things that would not get the same answer, that no parent would deny their child sustenance. Jesus urges us to call on God like a loving father.
This is shared by a man who didn’t always get what he asked for – his most basic desires – in prayer, but he kept praying anyway.
Remember, Jesus prayed daily, getting up early and often in isolation (Mark 1:35). Jesus spent time giving thanks for what God had given to him (even here, at the hour that he was to be arrested -Matthew 26:26). Jesus prayed that his friend would be raised from the dead in John 11. But when Jesus asked for help for himself, that the pain of trial and crucifixion would be taken away from him if it was God’s will (Luke 22:42), well, we know how that worked out. But instead of ceasing to pray because he didn’t get what he asked for, Jesus prayed this on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:14). Jesus prayed for his enemies even when it didn’t change his situation!
I believe Jesus prayed in big moments because it was his natural action day in and day out. Jesus defaulted to praying. (Seriously, what’s your ‘default setting’?)
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I sometimes feel like preaching from the example of Jesus gets dismissed, like, ‘but, of course he did, he was fully God, too!’ Well, that’s true, but the teaching of the early church implies that Jesus’ teaching took deep root. Acts 2:42 says that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Prayer was a basic building block to who the church was and what they were doing in the days and months after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
What follows in the writings of Paul and the other New Testament authors shares an even stronger understanding about prayer, and about prayer’s importance in the life of the Christian.
Paul understood that through prayer, we would begin to take on the mind of Christ – that we would know better what God’s will for our lives was when we engaged in prayer regularly. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
John the Apostle instructed his disciples to ask according to the will of God “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
Paul didn’t limit us on what we should pray about but also encouraged us to pray on behalf of others. “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 6:18).
Paul says we should pray instead of being anxious, mixing our prayers with requests and thanksgiving. (Do you remember to thank God?) “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phillipians 4:6-7).
The author of James insists that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective:”The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16b). Before we start making excuses about our prayers, consider that Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And even if we don’t know how to pray? Paul writes in Romans 8:26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
So how should we pray?
That’s a lot to wrap your head around, isn’t it? It’s like Prayer 101 but it still doesn’t give you a prayer to actually pray. There’s rejoicing, continually, with thanksgiving, with the mind of God. Sure, there are formulas you can use – like the ACTS prayer or a rosary – but I’ve always preferred this basic prayer when looking for a model. It’s from Matthew 6:9-13 – you’ve heard it before (wink). Jesus lays out the Lord’s Prayer, and it incapsulates so much more of this than we sometimes acknowledge.
“‘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 next time you pray, I hope you remember this.
The next time you’re thankful, I hope you remember.
The next time you know you’ve sinned, I hope you remember.
The next time you wish you had more or felt a need, I hope you remember.
The next time someone you know or hear about is in trouble, I hope you remember.
The next time you just want to acknowledge that God is God and we are not, I hope you remember.
God wants to be in conversation, to be in relationship, with us. Not simply sitting on the other end listening, or doing all of the talking either. Not taking notes on a to-d0 list, or simply hearing about the great things. God wants to be in every moment of our lives, the good and the bad and the ugly, the big and the small, the loud cries and the tiny ‘Amens.’
Try riding in silence in the car. Try praying with a break between each line in the Lord’s Prayer. Try praying over your food, remember your baptism in the shower.
No matter what, remember: God wants to be with you – and prayer is a good place to start.