There are many Christians who struggle with prayer. They may ‘meditate’, perhaps, offer up a prayer when faced with a crisis, and recite set prayers when they go to church, but doing anything more than that – having a daily ‘quiet time’, for example, or cultivating a personal prayer life – is not something which they would ever consider. What is more, a good number of people who admire Jesus’ ethical teaching, regard prayer and worship as at best an optional extra, and at worst a time-consuming distraction from the down-to-earth business of caring for others and ‘loving your neighbour.’ What is to be said about this?
In arguing for the importance of prayer in the life of a Christian, the first point to note is that Jesus himself took it very seriously indeed. He regularly attended synagogues to worship on the Sabbath with his fellow Jews (Luke 4:16), and took himself up on his own into the mountains (Mark 6:46) or to a solitary place of quiet early in the morning in order to pray (Mark 1:35). Before he chose his twelve disciples he spent a whole night on a mountain praying about it (Lk.6:12) and prior to his arrest which led inexorably to his crucifixion, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to bring that critical situation before God in prayer (Luke 22:39-46).
Jesus was devoted to God (cf Matt.22:34-38). He worshipped him not only as the Creator and Source of all Life, but as his source of inspiration – the One from whom everything good, beautiful, true and lovely ultimately flowed. He called God as his heavenly ‘Father’ (an image associated with creativity and love) and encouraged others to do the same (Rom.8:14-16). The reason why we can feel able as Christians to approach God and relate to him in the way they do – expectantly (Mt.7:7-12), persistently (Lk.18:1-8), and boldly (Hebrews 4:14-end) – is because of him. He showed us that God is approachable, a God of infinite Love. He in fact is the perfect role model, whom the disciples, who often saw him praying (eg Luke 9:18), wanted desperately to imitate (Luke 11:1).
If we look at the main forms of prayer which Christians most frequently mention: silent awe and wonder, for example; worship, praise and thanksgiving; penitence, confession, petition and dedication, we will notice that they all spring from our conscious response to God’s innate character and to the way in which he manifests himself in the world. The beauty of his Creation, for example, may evoke a sense of awe and wonder; an exemplary life could prompt celebratory praise and thanksgiving; and an encounter with cruelty or injustice could challenge us to pray for the victims (and perpetrators too that God may turn their hearts), to lament and repent of any share we may have had in what has happened, to give thanks for those who are seeking to bring relief or remedy the situation, and to dedicate ourselves to combating these things and working for a better world.
It is significant to note how prayer is always in the above examples the result of ‘listening’ and responding to what God has been ‘saying’. The initiative in other words lies with him, and it is why humility, honesty and openness to truth on our part is so important. In Jesus’ story about the publican and Pharisee going up to the Temple to pray, it is the publican who returns home ‘justified’ (in a right relationship with God), because he listens to what God is saying to him and repents, whilst the Pharisee listens only to himself! (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus warns for similar reasons against prayer which is simply an act designed to impress (Matthew 6:1-8)
The primary purpose of Christian prayer is to commune with God, to be close to him, to ‘listen’ to him, and to discern his Will. The first key petition in the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, is ‘Your Will be done [not mine]’ (Matt.6:10). We are tuning in to what he is calling us to be and to do. When Christians conclude their prayers, they often use the phrases, ‘in Jesus’ name’ or ‘for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord’. This is because they want to affirm their belief that the prayer is in accordance with God’s Will and one to which Jesus would have assented. The story is told of a Christian during the Second World War who heard of a neighbour’s child who had just been killed. “I hope”, he declared angrily to a friend who was with him, “that when our planes fly over Germany, they will kill as many children as their planes have killed of our own young people”. “If you really hope for that”, said his friend, “you should pray for it”. The man thought for a moment. “No, I can’t ask God for that”, he responded, “and I cannot conclude such a request by saying ‘for Jesus Christ’s sake’ either, because it wouldn’t be. I guess I don’t really want that at all, do I.”
Many things we think we want, and which we are tempted to pray for, are selfish and ill-considered. A good way to sort out the good from the bad is to turn our desires into prayers and then recite the Lord’s Prayer alongside them. By doing this it can often become much clearer, whether or not the former is in keeping with the latter.
It is the Christian experience that God is present and active everywhere, and when we pray he is there to help. He not only ‘speaks’ to us but enables us to ‘speak’ to him through his Holy Spirit, their ‘Advocate’ – to know what to say (John 15:26; 16:7-15). He is, as they say. ‘at both ends of the telephone’, and it is what Christians mean by ‘praying in the Spirit’. St. Paul once wrote in his letter to the Romans: “… 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. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Rom.8:26-27)
Praying in this way enables us to become channels of God’s grace; it is the key to effective intercessory prayer; it allows him to work freely in and through both us and others.
Some people want to manipulate God, to persuade or compel him to comply with their demands, and use prayer as a quasi-magical means to further their selfish ends. They treat him like a cosmic genie, who is there simply to do their bidding. Simon the sorcerer in Acts Ch.8 (verses 9-25) thought along these lines, but for Christians it is the other way round: we do not pray for him to help us with our agenda, but rather seek through prayer to cooperate with his agenda: ‘Your kingdom come; your Will be done’; and we do this willingly, because he is the God of all Goodness and Love we know in Jesus.