Continuing our journey through the Sermon On the Mount, this morning we come to the topic of prayer. As we did with the Beatitudes, we will take this topic as a series within a series. Today we will look at prayer in a general way, and in the next few weeks we’ll move through the Lord’s Prayer so that we can look at prayer with more specificity.
On any given day, I would imagine more people pray than engage in almost any other activity. Research and polls consistently tell us that almost everyone prays, regardless of their position related to faith. I have heard people with no religious belief whatsoever say that they pray, and pray regularly. It underlines the perceptiveness of William James when he wrote we pray because we cannot help praying.
Praying is simply innate to who we are as humans.
Listen to the words of Jesus about prayer -
But for something we do so often, I’m not sure we always understand prayer. We don’t always know if God answers our prayers, because it’s hard to tell what constitutes an answer. If I pray for patience, and then I experience a run of difficulties in life is it because God is teaching me patience or is it just coincidental bad luck? If we all gather together and pray that God would heal someone of a disease, and healing doesn’t come, did God ignore our prayer or is there something deeper happening that we may not be able to see or understand?
To understand all the workings of prayer is to try and peer into the mind of God, and we simply can’t do that. Why does God seem to act on some prayers but not others? I don’t know. How do we know the difference between an answered – or unanswered – prayer? I don’t know. If we ask God to do something that violates the very rules of nature that he created, will he do that? I don’t know. I’m not being very helpful, am I?
We cannot peer into the mind of God, nor can we fully understand the mind of God even when he tries to communicate with us. The human mind does not have the capacity to fully understand God, nor do we have the perspective of God to gain a deeper understanding of how he operates in relation to our prayers.
By way of example, it comes down to what may be the worst sermon illustration ever. Our family has a cat named Midnight. Midnight loves Nick and Tyler but I believe she has long been plotting to kill Tanya and me. Midnight is a fierce little cat that has held her ground against much larger dogs and generally seems fearless, except when it comes to our vacuum cleaner. Midnight is terrified of our vacuum cleaner. And I feel bad that when I run the vacuum cleaner I scare her. I don’t know what she sees when she looks at that vacuum, but I assume it seems to her as a spaceship from the far reaches of the universe would seem to us. It doesn’t matter if I pick her up and pat her gently and tell her it won’t hurt her; she will simply claw her way out of my arms and run for the door. It doesn’t matter what I do to try and communicate to her the vacuum won’t hurt her; she sees it as some noisy monster that will grab her by the tail and pull her in.
Neither can the human mind grasp the perspective of God. How do we, in our vastly limited understanding, ever hope to understand the mind that created this vast universe and its incredibly intricate governing laws?
Perhaps that’s why we have so many questions about prayer. And of all the questions we have about prayer, the question that looms the largest is do our prayers work; do they make any difference? Philip Yancey has written a book titled Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I have read a lot of Philip Yancey’s work, and I like a great deal of it, but the inclusion of that question in the title of his book shows how pervasive is a mistaken perspective we have when it comes to prayer. We are very practical Americans. We like when things work. We believe in quid pro quo, there is a trade-off in our transactions. And, if something doesn’t work, we stop doing it.
But prayer is not about “what works.” When we talk about whether or not prayer works we run the risk of treating prayer as a magical formula that will deliver to us something we want, provided we use the right words or ask in the right spirit.
So what is prayer?
Prayer is, first of all, a conversation with God.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the affirmation that God wants us to join with him in a relationship. It is impossible to be in a healthy, growing relationship without communication, without conversation. If I never talk to Tanya our relationship is going to go downhill pretty quickly. Of course, considering some of the things I say, there are times I would do better to keep my mouth closed.
That’s why Jesus was always praying. All throughout the gospels we see prayer as a central part of the life of Jesus, because his relationship to God was central to who he was.
Prayer seeks to draw us beyond ourselves.
During the summer months, when I was young, I would often lay in bed at night and pray that it would not rain the next day. I wanted to be outside playing, not sitting in the house watching it rain. It never occurred to me that the farmer down the road might be praying for rain for his crops. What was God to do with those conflicting prayers? When I was young that was the contents of my heart and mind – I wanted nice weather to play outdoors. If the contents of my heart and mind don’t move beyond that depth, then heaven help me. Perhaps God listens to some of my prayers now and thinks Dave, you can pray for something bigger than that, something bigger than you!
Prayer ought to draw us beyond ourselves and into the larger world and into the lives of others. When we pray and ask God to help someone, perhaps his answer is maybe you ought to help!
Prayer develops compassion within us for others.
This is the next logical step in prayer. If I am praying for someone will that prayer move me to action to express compassion for the person for whom I am praying?
Have you heard the kinds of prayers that are really more expressions of judgment than expressions of compassion? You know the kind – Lord, so and so really needs you to change them. You know they are no good. You know they are low down and sinful. Make them a good person, Lord, like me. It’s the kind of prayer the Pharisee prayers in the Temple as recorded in Luke 18:9-14. You remember the prayer – God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. That’s a pretty nervy prayer, isn’t it? The Pharisee should have been praying that he would have compassion for those people he so despised.
Prayer guides us into God’s perspective on life and the world.
This is especially true, I think, when we search for an answer to our prayers. Many prayers are only answered over a long period of time. Skeptics of prayer seldom understand this point, and sometimes we do as well. We present something to God and in our 24/7 mindset we think there ought to be a result like a drive-through prayer window. You drive up, place your order, pull forward, pick up your order. Frustratingly so, God doesn’t work on our time frame. In fact, sometimes I think God goes out of his way to ignore our time frame.
Prayer moves us into seeing the world and people as he sees the world and people. That is not easy to do, and without prayer, I don’t believe it is possible to gain this perspective.
Prayer draws us into love.
There are countless studies documenting the medicinal advantages of prayer and there are bookcases lined with volumes that have been written by prayer. But what is most powerful about prayer is when someone tells you I am praying for you. We can talk about prayer and we can discuss all the theological ramifications of prayer and we can study the history of prayer, but what is most powerful is to know that one of our grandparents, or our parents, or a friend prays for us.
To pray for another person is to express love for them. I hope you have a list of people you pray for each day. James implores us to pray for each other (James 5:16).
My junior high school teacher remains etched into my memory, and one of the reasons why is because she told us regularly that she was praying for each of us in her class. I knew she was praying for us every day, and I am grateful she told us so.
May we pray for one another. May we pray for those we don’t know. May we pray for our enemies. May we pray for those who would persecute us and falsely say all kinds of evil against us. This is what Jesus asks us to do. To be drawn into love by the power of prayer, that expresses some beautiful truths about prayer.
I will close with a Franciscan Benediction –
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
(Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey, p. 105)