A Remedy for Routine Prayer
Is anyone besides me tired of the standard prayers typically prayed by Christians? Perhaps you can relate to what I am talking about: “Dear God, please bless so-and-so with (health, a job, salvation, a renewed spiritual interest, an easier life, etc).” Not that there is anything particularly wrong with these things. They may indeed be legitimate matters for prayer. It does strike me, though, that we Christians often settle for so little when we make requests of God.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t really understand what is permissible to ask God for. Maybe we just get caught up in responding to the urgent felt-needs of those around us. Maybe we have become creatures of habit, falling into the set patterns of our particular circle of friends and church associates. Whatever the reason, I sometimes find typical evangelical prayer sessions to be insipid and all-too predictable: the same categories of prayer; the same focus on immediate physical and material needs; the same salvation requests.
Prayer sessions can easily be dominated by two or three people who don’t mind being either the center of attention or the perpetually needy ones. Maybe you can relate to feeling like this at a prayer gathering, “Here we go again. Brother Sam has been feeling upset again this week. He is requesting that God will remove the source of his frustration. Beside him, brother Ned needs a job for the third time in the past six months. Sister Sue is asking for her son’s salvation just as she has since we have first known her. Another sister has urgent health issues and can hardly function in her daily routines. (But, if so, how is she well enough to come to this prayer-gathering?) Across the circle, sister Mary is sharing another compelling story she came across on the internet this week. She wants prayer for an individual a continent away who has been “on her heart” for days but whom none of us has ever met. So we bow our heads and ask God to intervene.
Let me be clear: I am not condemning such prayers or the people who pray them. In my experience, the motives of those who make these kinds of requests are usually good. They care about people and they want God to bless them. Yet I have become increasingly discontent with prayer requests which go no further than this. It is entirely possible that, as a pastor, I am simply jaded by attending many dozens of these prayer sessions. Maybe I am also frustrated by the lack of discernible growth in these dear folks whose prayers seem to be on the same level year after year. It could be argued that these types of prayers simply reflect poor biblical teaching on the part of their leaders, including me. What I do know is that we ought to be asking God for much more than this.
So, I have put together a collection of prayer requests, which I believe are more in line with those modeled in scripture. I am urging that, along with praying for jobs and protection and the solving of various problems (all of which may be valid) that my fellow believers should consider praying “outside the routine box”. But what does a biblical, yet edgy prayer request look like? Let me give some examples. Try praying that people:
- Develop a deep love for God
- Have thoughts, words and actions controlled by the Holy Spirit
- Become willing to accept a life-changing direction from God
- Experience a sacrificial attitude in marriages, families and other relationships
- Come to genuine repentance
- Be a voice for Christ’s Kingdom when one is needed
- Develop the mental commitment and toughness to resist temptation
- Become competent in applying the truths of scripture to their own lives
- Desire personal excellence as a visible result of honoring God in all they do
- Be known as models of tolerance in situations in which tolerance pleases God
- Model godly family living
- Face their own blind spots
- Decide to be content with what cannot be changed
- Develop consistency and skill in their work
- Respond to conflict with truth, righteousness and mercy
- Acquire the ability to persevere through hardship and failure
- Learn true forgiveness
- Grow in their ability to speak about their faith in ways which ring true with the unchurched and unbelieving people around them
- Discover joy in giving to others
- Commit themselves to basic spiritual disciplines
- Develop healthy eating and exercise routines
- Stop judging others’ motives
- Learn the difference between explicit biblical teachings and their own inferences based on certain verses of scripture
- Become amazed at God’s care and provision in their lives
- Find God to be the beauty and acceptance they have been looking for
- Find God to be tougher and smarter than themselves
- Desire to become more than they have dreamed possible for God’s glory
- Find deep enjoyment in the life God has blessed them with
- At all times show themselves as models of the grace of God
I could add many more requests, which seem biblically true and yet relevant to the society we are currently living in. It could be that if we consistently prayed for ourselves and others like this, we might indeed turn the world upside down!
The Interaction of Prayer and Effort
Many years ago a friend of mine quoted a little saying about prayer which I still remember: “Prayer is work. Prayer does work. Prayer brings work.” I have no idea where he got this catchy little phrase, but since then, I have found it to be profoundly true. Here’s why.
Prayer is work. It isn’t always easy to pray. As you begin, your mind may have a hard time focusing on God. It is difficult to visualize a being who is all-powerful and wise, and yet invisible. Perhaps your body refuses to cooperate due to weariness, hunger, restlessness, or cramped muscles. You may battle with doubt or guilt, perplexity, anger or even apathy.
Prayer is work because you must insist on making time for it in your schedule. Your creativity may be stretched to find a quiet and private place to pray. You may have to do some study of scripture in order to learn how to address God, what types of things you may legitimately pray about and what your motives should be.
Prayer is also work in view of the long-term routines required in prayer. It is one thing to pray now and then; it is quite another to pray consistently over a period of years. Over the long haul, it requires effort to overcome the fatigue and discouragement, which may go with praying year after year. Though prayer may be a joyful and even liberating experience, it clearly involves real work at times.
Prayer does work. I am aware of the skeptical argument which says that prayer is just wishful thinking. Skeptics believe that any perceived results of prayer are merely coincidental or are due to the power of a positive mental attitude. Yet I have personally known many people who would point to definite instances of prayers being answered in ways hard to write off as psychological.
Of course, this should come as no surprise to followers of Christ. Jesus promised in John 15:7 that if we abide in him, we may ask whatever we will and it will be done. I take this to mean that if our lives are closely bound with his, we may ask freely because our will and purpose will also coincide with his. There are numerous other biblical passages which say that God hears the prayers of people who humbly pray according to his will.
Serious Christian experience also demonstrates prayer’s effectiveness. Things happen. People change and circumstances work out which could not have done so on their own. True, God responds in his own way and timing. There may be times in which nothing much seems to be happening. But God does respond. It is not at all uncommon for God to answer in a way which clearly grants even the specifics we have requested.
Prayer brings work. That is, prayer often spurs the person praying into action. It does this in several ways:
First, prayer sets in motion a chain of divinely orchestrated events, which require the petitioner to do something. Let’s say you are praying for a job. In due time a position becomes open, but part of God’s answer is up to you. You must fill out an application and attend the interview. God will not just hand you a job on a silver platter. What God can do is bring about circumstances which are beyond your control. But when those circumstances occur, it is you who must act.
Secondly, there are times in prayer when it is almost as if God interrupts and says, “OK, stop right there. Don’t ask me to do something which you know in your heart that you must do.” Maybe you are praying for a neighbor who has lost her job. She is facing real financial difficulties. It may be a good thing to pray for her, but if you can help her personally, prayer must wait. Before you ask God to intervene, buy her a few bags of groceries; fill her tank with gasoline; give her children Christmas presents. God may be saying, “Yes, I’ll provide for your neighbor—starting with you.”
So work and prayer are indeed inseparable. Communicating with God requires some serious effort. God does respond to prayer and things happen. Sometimes prayer puts us in a position which calls us to take further action ourselves. How true it is: Prayer is work; prayer does work; prayer brings work!