Sometime in the first half of last year, I blogged about this, but through a post on Facebook by my eldest child and a comment to it made by my second oldest, I feel the urge to make a few comments once again. And that topic is prayer.
The original post was this: “I have never liked being told ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Thanks, but no thanks. If you want to help me out, give me something useful, like money.” The comment to this post was this: “I mentally translate it as ‘I am thinking nice thoughts about you and hoping things go well.'”
Whether they realized it or not, they each hit on one of two things about prayer, both of which, honestly and unfortunately, are prevalent within the body of Christ.
The first thing is that prayer can be seen as a way (maybe better termed a “cop out”) to not meet a need in a physical sense. This is along the lines of James 2:15-17 when James says, “If a brother (or sister) is without clothing and lacks daily food, and any one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled, yet you do not give them the necessities of the body, what is the profit? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself.“
I know that when a person doesn’t want to do what s/he is being urged by the Holy Spirit to do in physically meeting a need, but still wants to look caring and spiritual all at the same time, it is at that time that the phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” is tossed out. In this way, prayer is used as a back door in order to get out of what the Spirit is urging. There’s even a decent chance that the person won’t even really and truly pray. The phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” is also used as an exit strategy, meaning when a person doesn’t want to hear anymore about whatever the other person is saying, that phrase is uttered and the exit is made, while still looking good and spiritual.
And I know it happens because I have also been guilty in the past of doing this. And I don’t believe I’m unique.
I have always been struck by something that did not occur in Acts 3. Peter and John were going up to the temple and happened by a guy who had been lame from birth and daily begged to maintain an existence. As Peter and John approached, this guy did what he always did and asked for money. Peter and John had none to give to him, but what they did have they gave to him freely. Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus, told the man to get up and walk home. What’s missing here? Peter and John didn’t stop to pray. It wasn’t necessary. It was apparent to them what to do. They didn’t throw at the man, “We’ll pray for you,” and keep going, not giving the guy another thought. Nope, they recognized through the Spirit what was to be done and they did it. Praying wasn’t necessary.
The second thing has to do with the nature of prayer itself. As my second oldest put it, “I mentally translate it as ‘I am thinking nice thoughts about you and hoping things go well.'” And in that, she has hit on the common approach to prayer. In many ways, it has become nothing more than her description propped up with the phrases, “Prayer makes a difference” and “Prayer works,” which I think are often used in some poor attempt to prop up some semblance of confidence.
Why do I say this? Because I’d like to know what a person’s confidence level is in praying a certain prayer. It has been my experience, both personally and those with whom I have discussed this very issue, that the common confidence level is actually quite low, or actually nonexistent, because there is no certainty that what is prayed will happen.
Passages of Scripture such as 1 John 5:14-15: “And this is the boldness which we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” and Matthew 21:22: “And all that you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive“ are spoken but consider what they are saying about confidence level.
In John’s words, the key to having confidence that God has heard us is whether or not what has been asked is of His will. I once preached (and had someone disagree with my perspective and that’s okay) that the opposite of this passage is also true. If we have boldness, meaning confident or sure, that He hears us when what we ask is according to His will, then we also have no boldness or confidence if we aren’t sure that what we are asking is according to His will. And the way I also view this converse, God is only “required” to hear if something is according to His will. If it isn’t, then we have no “right” to expect God to hear. Now, God might decide to respond anyway, just like He did with Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9), but He is, according to this passage, under no obligation to do so.
See, the problem is this: people use prayer to FIND God’s will when prayer is about praying God’s will, not finding it. People use prayer as “shots in the dark,” hoping to hit the target in a dark room, hoping that one of the different ways prayed might might actually hit the mark, be God’s will, and then He will hear.
Where’s the confidence in that?
Where’s the level of belief, according to Jesus’ words?
There truly and in reality isn’t any. And unfortunately, this is the way too many Christians approach and use prayer. There is, at best, a low level of confidence in praying, and at worst, actually zero confidence. And that is why I say my daughter’s perspective on people’s true approach to prayer is sadly accurate.
Over the past 12 months, I have come to the realization that the common approach to prayer within the body of Christ doesn’t just need an overhaul; it needs to be blown up and replaced with the proper approach to prayer. If prayer is for praying the will of God, then God’s will should first be determined and then that is what is prayed. And imagine the confidence level when we KNOW we are praying God’s will. The promise of John’s words becomes the reality, not just a shot in the dark.
How do we get there? Graham Cooke deals with this in his booklet, “Crafted Prayer.” And there are steps to this process. The first is worshiping, real and genuine worship, not the type where I need to do this because it is like the proverbial “rubbing of the lamp” in order to get God to do something. Second is becoming still and listening. This stillness is in body, mind, emotions and spirit. Once this stillness is achieved, listening is crucial. To what do we listen? We listen to what the Holy Spirit and Jesus are already praying (Romans 8) and then we write it down. We write it down so that we continue to pray the same thing and not default to that shotgun approach, hoping in the varied possible outcomes being prayed, we might hit the mark of God’s will. Then we actually pray; we join our voices to theirs. And watch what happens, because I’m of the perspective that whatever the Spirit and Jesus are praying, that is what will actually, in God’s timing, happen. And there’s the boldness and confidence!
All of this takes time and potentially a lot of it. And that is a struggle for, out of concern and compassion, we pray quickly, but because we pray quickly, we have not sought to listen to what God wants to do, and the level of confidence plummets. We must be willing to invest the time and forget the “microwave” approach to prayer.
Someone I recently met told me of her personal experience in the realm of what I have been saying here. In late 2012, she listened and heard the Spirit and Jesus asking the Father to give her cancer. Now, that would be a shock in and of itself, but what was shocking to others (it wasn’t to her) was that she added her voice to theirs and began praying for God to give her cancer. At no previous checkup had cancer ever shown up, but for the first 3 months of 2013, she was certain she had breast cancer. In April, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was in stage 3, so it was advanced.
The normal treatments began and at her follow up appointments, the cancer was still there, not affected much, until just recently. She heard the Spirit and Jesus praying that she would be healed from the cancer. At her next appointment, no trace of the cancer could be found. It was totally gone. The doctors couldn’t explain it.
Throughout this whole experience, she has had opportunity to cross paths with people whom she would have never met had it not been for the cancer, people into whose lives she was able to speak something from God.
So, imagine if prayer was approached in this manner. Imagine what would happen if word got out that whatever a person or church prayed is what eventually occurred? No longer would it be “sending good thoughts and hoping things go well;” it would be what it truly is.
How incredible would that be?