Mar 8, 2011

what's the point of prayer - pt 3

After my first and second post in this series on prayer, we come to one of the most honest questions we ask about prayer.

To sum up…
  • PART ONE underscores that we can’t control God, be it through prayer or any other means.
  • PART TWO revealed that God has a Story, knows all things, and is working toward something.

From one vantage point, prayer is an unburdening of sorts. People sometimes pray at bed time to get things off of their chest and out of their head so they can sleep. Others find it helpful to pray a prayer of thankfulness before facing the negative stuff in life because it helps them put things in perspective.

These are great practices, but the Bible reveals prayer can be something even deeper. Namely, that prayer awakens your relationship with God and activates a trust in the Holy Spirit who resides within a born-again Christian. It's extremely catalytic to your life and faith, especially when it feels like your requests and conversation are in step with God.

However, this is also where it gets sticky. God knows all things, which means He knows all things that could be known - past, present, and future - and he knows them all at the same time. He is never surprised from the big picture, and yet is active in the world we are in just as much as we are.

Understanding this before we move on is key, so let me give you a metaphor. Imagine what it would be like to stick your hand in a fishbowl and wiggle your fingers. To the fish, you exist in its world as something it doesn’t understand… so it reacts accordingly. You, however, see the entire fish bowl so no matter where the fish swims you see it (whether or not you move your hand to stay on top of it)

Unlike this example, God isn’t merely playing around in the “water” we live in. His nature causes Him to add life to our life, and prune out what doesn’t belong (see John 15). He knows the names of all 5.7 billion people who call planet earth home, but not as a trivia fact. He knows the names of everyone who has ever lived here and everyone yet to be born, but not as a history lesson. He knows these things because He cares for us, whether your health is in question or finances seem tighter than ever. He feels the angst of those situations, as well as what happens when your crabby boss gets on your case or how you sometimes worry about things you don’t say out loud.

Listen to the words of Psalm 139:1-4.
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. 

It's a liberating truth for your prayer life, because it means I don’t have to yell or shout to try and make him understand. Sometimes I barely even use words in my prayers, because I know He knows. Repeating myself in a prayer is helpful only for me - He got the message the first time. Actually, he got the message before I ever sent it.

So why pray?

Consider an interview Dan Rather once had with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Dan asked, "What do you say to God when you pray?"

Teresa answered, "I listen."

Dan, somewhat flustered, countered, "Well, then, what does God say?"

Teresa replied, "He listens." At that point Dan Rather looked totally puzzled, so Teresa added, "If you can't understand that, I can't explain it to you."

God has invited us to bring our needs to Him, but not to seek the answer. Rather, He is most concerned with our relationship with Him and what is happening in us before anything may change in what’s happening to us. We are told to ask, to seek, to knock so the door can be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

But have you ever asked “The door to what?” 

In Psalm 81:10 the Lord promises, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” You can either focus on what your mouth gets filled with, or you can focus on Who is doing the filling and why He’s doing it.

Here’s another problem with our prayers: We don’t know what we really need. We think we do, but we don’t. Or to be more accurate, we know part of our needs, but not all of them. Our perspective is inevitably limited by our own experience, desires and personal knowledge. There may be a legitimate pain that we want relieved in our life or someone else’s, but we aren’t always correct in assuming that is the way things ought to be.

In contrast, Matthew 6:8 plainly declares, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Yet He desires us to pray so that we can can express our total dependence upon our Heavenly Father.
That’s the big answer, by the way. We pray to merge our sense of the ultimate story with His Story. I pour out my heart before Him not to convince Him of something, but so that I can let Him share His heart with mine and we somehow meet in the middle.

Romans 8:26 says that “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” How true that is. Over the years I’ve begged God for what I thought I wanted, only He held back to give me what I *really* wanted. In one case I got the answer I demanded - it was a dream job that was offered to me. However, I realized and prayed, “God, You’re letting me have this, but I know You are not in it. So I’m going to say no.” In another case it was “God, I want things to work out with this girl,” only they didn’t – and as hard as it was, things shifted in me that prepared me for meeting my amazing wife.

There have been other things God has said “Not now” or “No” to me on that to this day I still don’t understand. This is where prayer again comes back to the relationship, for if I see God as only a genie who runs on my will I won’t trust His answers. Yet if I pray on good days and bad days, I can more authentically come to Him, wrestle with Him and follow Him no matter what the answer is.

Picture a father watching his child trying to put together a puzzle. The kid tries and tries but just can’t get the pieces in the right place. The father watches with great interest, but he doesn’t interfere.

Finally, the child comes over and crawls in his lap and says, “Daddy, would you help me put my puzzle together?” He smiles and bends down and together they begin to pick up each piece. One by one they put the puzzle together.

Why didn’t the father help his daughter earlier? For one thing, there was no ask for help. For another, he wanted his child to learn what it means to try. And most of all, he wanted this to be a two-way thing, and not just him imposing his will on his child.

Is this not a picture of how our Father deals with His children? Although He longs to come to our aid, often He waits until we specifically ask Him. Sometimes He wants us to come to the end of our own pitiful resources before He intervenes. When we cry out in despair, He is honored as we express our complete dependence upon Him (not out of ego, but because that is actually how it is whether we admit it or not). And there are times when He says, “I have to say no to this one, or at least ‘Not yet,’ because I am saying ‘Yes’ to something greater you can’t yet see.”

This is where it gets tricky, because we all know from personal experience that not all our aks of a parent are answered the first time we pray them… and the same can be true of God. Jesus tells a story about a persistent widow who wears down a judge through constant asks, and Christ compares that to how we are to pray. Sometimes we receive immediate answers, but often we must wait days, weeks, months, or even years before the answer comes. This isn’t because God is playing a game with us (although it may seem like it), but because timing matters.

Practically, how long should you pray for something God-honoring? Apparently the answer is pray until God answers your prayers.

But don’t seek the answer… seek God through your questions. 

He may be waiting to release something into your life, but you need to first become someone who can handle the answer appropriately. A human father doesn’t give car keys to a toddler… so make sure you are growing in your faith.

Again, back to the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus says: “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18:7-8).

James 5:16 says “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” In the original language James used a word that means “to boil over.” Fervent prayers get God’s attention because they come from a heart that believes God’s power is unlimited.

Remember, He is God and we are not.

So why pray? Outside of everything that’s already been shared, here’s one more thought… God has commanded us to pray, which means that prayer must be good for us. He doesn't need us to do this to know anything, but by praying we begin to know more... and know Him more.

Prayer sometimes changes things, but it always changes us.  

And that just might be one of the greatest reasons to pray, outside of crawling up onto the lap of our Father and figuring out the puzzle of life together.


Clara said...

Love your puzzle analogy!

GC. said...

Very thought provoking and intereting three part homily on prayer. I really enjoyed reading (and reflecting) on it.

GC. said...

thought provoking and interesting....