January 28, 2012

Prayer is a Puzzling Proposition for Christians

Even the most common of circumstances can be a gold mine for spiritual discussion.  Take for example a lunch outing with a co-worker friend this week.  Within minutes of being seated and given menus, the topic of conversation turned to prayer and why some Christians find prayer unappealing. 

My friend’s first objection to prayer was that God’s will is always to bring glory to Himself; therefore why pray, because God is guaranteed to execute His optimal will in all circumstances regardless of what is voiced in prayer.

His second objection was, God knows what you’re going to say and do before you say and do it, so why pray if you aren’t bringing anything to the table that God doesn’t already know.

His third objection was, God’s will is impossible to discern, therefore, 50 percent of the time you get what you pray for and 50 percent of the time you don’t.  In his opinion, 50 percent odds of being disappointed with God’s reply are not motivating odds.  Dealing with the circumstances which God delivers is enough of an emotional burden without being doubly invested by praying.

I am glad that my friend felt welcome to share his honest feelings about why prayer isn’t his strength.  He didn’t divulge anything that I haven’t already considered.  He gave me the opportunity to contribute additional talking points.  My input was not aimed to destroy his perspective, but to supplement it. 

Before I ask you to settle in for this lengthy read, here is the Cliffs’ Notes version:

Pray because God commands you to pray.

Pray because it fosters an intimate relationship with God.

Pray because God is listening.

Pray because the Holy Spirit has a job to do.

Pray because God desires for you to participate in your own destiny, for your own reward.

Pray because man's input affects God’s decisions.

Pray because God has something to tell you.

Pray because God commands you to pray.

Pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Quench not the Spirit.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:17-19

I am convinced that God commands us to pray and expects us to honor that command.  My pleasing Him or not pleasing Him revolves around my compliance to this command whether or not I understand anything further about the dynamic or purposes of prayer.  Should we stop our conversation here, we know the honorable action to take and that is to pray regardless of our emotions or preferred results.   

When these verses from Thessalonians are considered collectively, the value of prayer is illuminated.  Giving thanks is a form of prayer.  When you pray or give thanks, you successfully carry out God’s will.  This should motivate us.  The alternative, which is failing to pray and give thanks, quenches the Holy Spirit.  This too should motivate us.  Sins of omission are as dangerous as sins of commission.  None of us wants to be found guilty of quenching the Holy Spirit in failing to pray.

Pray because it fosters an intimate relationship with God.

“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  Matthew 6:6-8

God knows our thoughts before we ask Him, so prayer will not educate God on what you need or what is going on in your life.   But God is identified as “your Father” three times here.  By that title, we recognize an intimate relationship.  Pouring out your heart to someone you trust, even if that person knows you so well that they can predict what you will say, fosters the bond between you. God wants to be the ultimate love relationship in our lives therefore He commands us to pray to keep our relationship alive and thriving.  

This passage also emphasizes privacy and simplicity when praying, which again are benchmarks for intimacy.  It does not condemn public prayer, it merely condones private prayer.  It says, “when you pray”, not “if you pray”; from this I conclude that God, who is my Father, has expectations about my behavior, just as my earthly father does. The more we talk and the more time we spend together, the more we mutually benefit from our relationship. 

Pray because God is listening.

“The righteous cry, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles.” ~ Psalm 34:17

“For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” ~ 1 Peter 3:12

His eyes and His ears are on us!  We have the Almighty’s undivided attention and yet we ignore Him while He watches and listens.  We covet His attention in desperate times. Shouldn’t we acknowledge His ear at all times, seeing that He is certainly giving it?

Pray because the Holy Spirit has a job to do.

Isaiah 55:8 tells us that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts nor are our ways His ways.  So, between the two of us, God has me completely figured out and I don’t remotely have Him figured out. I have sincere prayer intent and sincere prayer needs which are riddled with error, short-sightedness, and ignorance.  I am compelled to pray, both out of my own desperate need for God’s help as well as in obedience to His direct command. But my pleas are incompatible with his Holy hearing.  Yet the whole point of prayer is to give and receive communication with The Holy One.  An exchange must be achieved somehow. 

Romans 8:26-27 says, “Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”

Ah ha!   God provides a translator, the Holy Spirit, to convert our flawed prayers into acceptable appeals.  Our prayers are filtered through the Holy Spirit. He converts them into a language acceptable in the ears of God.  Can you see now how failing to pray quenches the Holy Spirit?  He is striving to do a job.  He relies on our commitment to pray no matter how infirmed those prayers may be.  Neglecting to pray sabotages the Holy Spirit’s work.

Pray because God desires for you to participate in your own destiny, for your own reward.

Let us assume that you have never seen the color purple and did not know its existence was possible.  But God has a vision of purple and desires to bless your life with it.  So God commands you to surrender your blue paint (come to Him in prayer).  Without understanding why God has commanded you to surrender your blue paint, you obey anyway.  The Holy Spirit contributes His red paint to the union and God produces a perfect purple which He returns back to you in the form of blessing.  

Can you see how God wills your participation in the plans He has for you?  He commands you to pray so that you are an active participant in the destiny which He is weaving.  He produces perfection through your obedience no matter how insufficient the human contribution is.  In our example, you could not provide the needed red paint because you didn’t possess any but God compensated for your deficiencies with the Holy Spirit’s input.  When added to your prayer sacrifice, the Holy Spirit provides the missing pieces to produce a completed work of God’s design.

I have often wondered why God instructs us to PRAY FOR LABORERS to harvest souls for salvation. God needs the help of no man to harvest a soul.  No one loves a sinner more than Jesus who died for him. God reaches sinners through dreams, visions, angels, voices coming from burning bushes and even talking donkeys (yes, God allowed a donkey to speak; Numbers 22:28).  No human being assisted God in converting the chief of sinners, the Apostle Paul.  I could evaporate right now and the number of souls granted entrance into Heaven would still be the same; nonetheless, Jesus said, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore [you] pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” ~ Matthew 9:37-38

I think that God commands us to pray for laborers so that our hearts may be pricked to become one of those laborers.  When I pray, I agree that the mission is an important one and I develop a sensitivity to be called to it.  In joining the mission, I reap the spoils of the harvest. If I don’t labor for souls because I fail to pray as instructed, then I will have fewer rewards in Heaven.  Is my labor essential for people to obtain salvation?   Absolutely not.  God’s plan cannot be thwarted, but my rewards would suffer.

Pray because man's input affects God’s decisions.

“Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” ~ James 5:16

God is listening to our prayers.  He highly regards the Holy Spirit’s support of those petitions.  How can He not respond to His own Spirit?  Prayers avail much.  Scripture promises us so.  It doesn’t take long when reading through the Old Testament to learn that God rewrites the strategy of His plans in response to His beloved petitioners.  Take for example this scene from the life of Moses:

“And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the LORD, the fire was quenched.” ~ Numbers 11:1-2

After God’s anger was provoked, the prayers of his servant spurred Him to restrain His wrath.  God also responded to the prayers of Abraham (Genesis chapter 18), Jacob (Genesis chapter 32), Phinehas (Numbers chapter 25) and Gideon (Judges chapter 6).  The Bible is full of these encounters.

Just because God has a fixed, ultimate will doesn’t mean that He can’t use an infinite range of scenarios to achieve that will.   He is The Creator, after all.  Let's assume He wills to bestow a gift of money to someone in need. He could inspire a praying donor to deliver the gift out of his abundance, for which to the donor would be rewarded in Heaven. Or He may send the money via a tax refund, where no donor is rewarded.  Missions can be accomplished through multiple means.  Prayer alters those means.

Just because God is omniscient and knows that He will alter His strategy midstream, does not mean that everything transpires identically to the way it would have occurred had no one prayed.  Omniscience does not imply that God controls human decisions, it implies that He foresees human decisions.  God waits to respond to prayers as they are lifted up before He alters the circumstances around us. He knows whose prayers will persuade Him to shuffle those circumstances.  He also knows how He would have delivered His will in the absence of those prayers.

Pray because God has something to tell you.

Jesus said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you.”  John 16:12-14

The same Holy Spirit who translates our prayers to the ears of God also translates God’s words to our ears.  There are powerful things to hear and to see which only the Holy Spirit can reveal.  Without retreating into the prayer encounter, we miss all of these fine revelations.

Personally, I think the perks of praying far exceed the emotional risk of investing in the unknown.  The more you pray, the more you trust the God you engage and the less your vulnerability matters.  We are privileged that these incentives are laid out so clearly.   I encourage you to think about the merits of each of these individually.  Any one of them can single-handedly conquer the human instinct of neglecting to pray.

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