Most Christians - and a bunch of people who aren't Christians - know that prayer is important. Prayer is often an instinctual reaction when in a crisis situation, even if the person who is praying isn't sure if there's anyone out there listening. If you've been in the church for any length of time, you've probably heard pastors urge you to pray countless times, perhaps only second to exhortations to read your Bible. But have you ever stopped to think about why prayer is such a big deal? After all, if God knows everything, and can do everything, why does it even matter if we tell him about our needs, wants, and longings? And if God knows our thoughts before we even think them, why bother to take time out of our very busy lives and quiet our hearts and minds to talk to him? And if we decide to pray, how should we even start? What should we pray for?
These are important questions, and they're well worth taking the time to think through. At CCC, we believe that we can know the God who created all things, and we believe that Jesus isn't a distant religious figure, but someone with whom a real, personal relationship is available today. For this kind of relationship to occur, prayer is foundational. It is essential. And it is one of the greatest weapons that Christians have in our fight for joy.
WHY WE PRAY
Why pray? Well, for starters, Jesus told us to. Flip through the gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry and you'll find him instructing his disciples to pray for their enemies, to pray humbly, to pray that they would be kept from temptations, to pray for their daily needs, and on and on the list goes. If we're going to be obedient to follow the commands of Jesus, we're going to be praying people. It's that simple.
But Jesus didn't just tell us to pray, or teach us how to pray, he also modeled what a life of prayer looks like. You can scarcely get through two or three chapters in the Gospels without finding Jesus going off to a quiet place away from the crowd to pray. Not only does this teach us something of the importance of prayer, but it also obliterates our assumption that if God already knows our thoughts, prayer is unimportant. Jesus is God himself, his will perfectly united to that of his Father. No one in the history of the world ever enjoyed closer communion with God the Father. And yet, we find him constantly in prayer!
This teaches us a vital truth about the reason that we pray. If we think of prayer as a task that we perform to exchange information with God, then Jesus' prayer life is nonsensical. However, if we conceive of prayer as a means of communion with a personal God with whom we are in relationship, then we would expect to see Jesus spending frequent time with his Father! Do you find yourself wishing your relationship with God was more vibrant and strong? Ask yourself if you are spending regular time alone in prayer.
Think about Jesus' critique of the way the religious pagans of his day prayed. He told his followers in Matthew 6:7 not to throw out a bunch of "empty phrases" like they did, thinking that their gods would hear them because of their many elegant words. The reason not to do this? Because God "knows what you need before you ask him." When we pray, we ask God for our needs (in his instructional prayer in Matthew 6 Jesus tells us to do exactly that), but informing God of our needs is not the point of prayer. The point of prayer is humbling ourselves in the presence of a perfect, all-powerful Father who knows and loves us and being reminded of our complete dependence on him - and of what a wonderful reality that is! Everything that we proclaim and ask for in prayer is an outflow of our grasping that truth and desiring our lives to be ordered in accordance with it.
WHAT WE SHOULD PRAY FOR
Once we begin to understand the foundations of why we pray, the next logical question is what should we pray for? Jesus gave us some basic guidance in his model prayer that he gave to his disciples, praying for things such as God's glory, the expansion of his kingdom, our physical needs, forgiveness for sin, the ability to forgive others, and deliverance from temptation. This provides a great place to start an examination of our prayer lives. Ask yourself, "Am I praying for all of these things in some way as part of my regular prayer life?"
Where I think the Bible challenges us the most clearly and strongly in regards to prayer is in the question of what the focus of our prayer lives should be. What should occupy the bulk of our prayer time, attention, and affections? It is here that the examples of prayer we see throughout the New Testament record present a picture that is frankly foreign to our American Christian culture. The Christians we see portrayed in the New Testament record are passionately focused on praying for growth in godliness, both for themselves and for others.
Sometimes, we see people praying for God to intervene in their circumstances, such as Paul's request for prayer for deliverance from opposition in Romans 15:30-33, or the church praying for Peter's release from prison in Acts 12:5 (as an aside, I love the fact that the people praying for Peter's release didn't even believe it when he was released and showed up at their door - God can do incredible things with weak faith!). But far more often, we see prayers of thanksgiving for the work of God's Spirit in the world (Romans 1:8-10, 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, and Colossians 1:3-8, among others), and prayers that God would grow people in their faith and trust in him (Ephesians 3:14-21, Philippians 1:9-11, and 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, to name a few). Paul and the other apostles were passionate about seeing the gospel go out into the world and transform sinners into the likeness of Jesus Christ, and it showed clearly in their prayers.
This leads to what is likely a difficult and convicting question - do your prayers show that you are passionate about those things? If we had a window into your prayer life, would we get the impression that you felt growth in godliness was the most important thing you could possibly ask for, for yourself and others? I confess that my answer is a shameful no. But I am thankful for a God of grace who is growing me to love and value these things more and more, and I see the evidence of the Spirit's work in how these things are showing up in my prayers. And the beautiful thing is that these very prayers feed further passion for growth in godliness. As I pray for it, I find I desire it more and more, which leads me to pray for it more and more!
This amazing reality showcases one last truth that we'd do well to learn about prayer. As I said earlier, we are often tempted to see prayer as an exercise where we provide God with information in order to get him to change and do what we want. The glorious reality, though, is that prayer is an exercise where our hearts are shaped by encountering God in his glory, and the end result is that it is we who are changed. In prayer, God invites us to bare our hearts before him in order that he might change us. And that is something that I need far more desperately - and that will bring me much more joy - than a simple change in circumstances. So keep asking for God to change your circumstances, to heal you, deliver you from opposition, and grant you your longings and desires - God wants us to ask for those things! But keep your focus and your deepest longings for knowing him more fully whatever your circumstances, and seeing others experience the same thing, for that is the greatest treasure and blessing you could ask for. That is the true point of prayer.