Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What is prayer?

My wife asked me if I knew any good books about prayer.  As a matter of fact, I do.  But I asked what sort of book on prayer she wanted--what question was she trying to answer.  She had an impressive list of questions.

How come God sometimes changes His mind, like in the story of the good king Hezekiah?  How come sometimes He answers the prayer of one person, and sometimes He only answers after many people pray?  We are instructed to go to the elders for prayer when we are sick, but why do the elders' prayers count more than my own?  Is there a formula for how and when we are supposed to share our prayers?

Well, I'm in the process of building a shared prayer journal website, called Pray with Friends.  It turns out that I have some ideas on answers to these questions.  I think best while writing (and editing the dumb things I write in my first draft.)  So I'm writing my thoughts out here.  I'll also include a few books I liked at the end, for further study.

Let me start by saying that all of this is supposing a Christian world-view.  I am only talking about the Christian God.  I know that Hindus, Muslims, and others have different views on prayer.  I am a Christian, and my views relate to Christians.  This is the internet, and that sort of disclaimer seems appropriate.

I think that there are five reasons why we are supposed to pray and share our prayer needs with other.

First and foremost, I believe that we pray because God loves to hear from us.  I can't explain why He loves us, but He clearly does.  He desires a relationship with each one of us, and prayer is an important part of that relationship.  He listens when we talk, and He enjoys hearing from us.

Frankly, that is enough reason.  Everything else is just icing on the cake.

Second, I believe that we pray because it reminds us of our faith.  We are reminded that He created everything and He controls everything.  It's similar to why we celebrate The Lord's Supper.  It's a reminder.

Third, I believe that we pray because it causes us to rethink our circumstances from God's perspective.  Jesus taught us to pray "Your kingdom come, Your will be done."  That is our model.  Too often we approach prayer with an agenda of things that we want to receive from God--things we want Him to do for us.  That is fine for baby Christians, but as we mature we should learn that the day-to-day concerns of life really are not important in-and-of-themselves.  The most important thing is that He receives glory from our lives--whatever the circumstances.

God receives glory when a saint is miraculously healed.  In my experience, He receives a different sort of glory when a saint suffers well.  I feel like He prefers the well-suffering saint--but that is just a guess on my part.  We pray so that we can grow up, spiritually, and learn to see our good and bad circumstances as gifts from God and opportunities to glorify Him.

God also clearly values people over stuff.  When we pray for other people it chips away at our stuff addiction and helps us focus on God's priorities.  Call it the anti-marketing effect of prayer.  This is why it feels hollow to pray for toys and situations that don't really matter, but it is quite moving to pray for people who are in genuinely dangerous or painful situations.  Those situations bring about prayers that are closer to God's heart.

I hate to brake it to you, but that new boat that you want is pretty low on God's priority list.  He loves us, and He wants to give us good gifts that will bring us joy.  But as we come to be more like Him we will take more joy from blessing the lives of people in need and less joy from toys.

Fourth, we are instructed to love one another.  Jesus says that unbelievers will be amazed at the ways that we love one another.  But how can I demonstrate love to you if I don't know what you need?  Call this aspect of prayer the anti-gossip.  Gossip is sharing of stories, maybe true or maybe false, with the intent of hurting someone.  Sharing prayer requests with one another is sharing true stories with the intent of helping.  In many cases our intent is to help both the person we are sharing the request about AND the person we are sharing the story with.

I fully believe that God told us to share big prayer requests with each other so that we could meet each other's needs.  When I hear someone share a prayer request the first thing I ask is "what can I do to help this situation?"  Often there is nothing I can do.  Sometimes I can take action to help alleviate the pain and suffering of others.

That is why I think we are instructed to take big concerns, like sickness, to the elders for prayer.  Generally speaking, an elder in a Christian church should be well connected.  They should know someone who can help, if they cannot help directly.  In this way the elders act as traffic cops for expressions of love that meet real needs within the body of Christ.

Fifth, sometimes the only way out of our situation is for God to miraculously act.  I don't know why He sometimes chooses to act and sometimes chooses to let saints suffer.  It's just my opinion, but I think that God prefers to receive glory from believers loving each other and meeting each others' needs, over the glory of miraculously healing someone.  I came to that conclusion because that seems to be the way that He acts--He genuinely leaves it up to us to love and care for each other instead of stepping in.  In most of the situations where He didn't act and saints suffered I assume that He was acting, prompting saints to love on the one who is suffering; but some saint chose not to act.

Do you remember the joke where the faithful man's house floods and he prays and asks God to save him?  The flood waters rise and a row boat comes by.  The folks in the row boat try to take him to safety, but he resists saying, "I believe God will save me."  The water rises and he has to climb on the roof.  A big rescue boat comes by and the rescue workers try to get the man from his roof.  He refuses and says, "God will save me."  The water rises and the man has to stand on top of his chimney.  The water is at his knees and threatening to wash him away.  A helicopter comes by.  A rescue workers winches down on a line and tries to get a hold of the man.  The man pushes him away and says, "God will save me."  The water rises and the man drowns.  The man gets to heaven and he asks God, "Why didn't You save me?"  To which God replies, "I sent you two boats and a helicopter.  Why didn't you accept the help I sent?"

I think it is simply the case that God often calls the rescue workers to go and save people, and the rescue workers refuse to go.  I'm guessing that He calls many different rescue workers, and they all refuse.  In those situations, if God followed their refusal with miraculously saving the person then the rescuers would not learn any lessons from their disobedience.  But when the man trapped in the flood water drowns, and the rescue workers who refused to go see that, then they have an opportunity to learn from their disobedience.

Is this harsh?  Maybe.  But I think that God values obedience more than we do.  I also think that He is dedicated to our free will, and He highly values our work.  Our work is meaningless if nothing really relies on it--if He is going to just rescue the person Himself then our work has little value.

Also, this perspective is only harsh if you assume that suffering is always bad and God is only glorified when people are saved.  But that is an immature world-view.  You need to understand that God's glory is more important than anyone's temporary sufferings.  Those who suffer well will be rewarded.  And those who are called will eventually learn to obey.  God will be glorified whether we obey or not.

But sometimes He chooses to act.  On several occasions I have prayed all by myself for miraculously intervention, and He has acted.  Many of those are situations where no one else knows I prayed.  Usually those are situations where I prayed once about a situation.  Usually I didn't have time to pray a second time before God acted.  I can only think of one example in my life where God waited until I had prayed privately many times for a miracle.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that God always answers my prayers.  I'm just saying that I do have several experiences where He did miraculously answer.  I have many many more experiences where the rescue workers never showed up.

I have also prayed for situations where many people were praying, and God acted.  I don't think there is a formula in getting God to act.  I know that many people have their faith strengthened by these situations.  That's the only reason I can think of for God to wait until many people pray.

In conclusion, I think it is important to note that we were not instructed to pray based upon an assumption of results.  We are just instructed to pray, and to share our prayer needs with others.  That is the only part that we are responsible for, and the only part that we can affect.

Prayer books I like:
How to Pray by Bill Bright
Straight-forward instruction in plain language.  A great starting point.  I cannot find a link where you can buy it any more.  It is a little booklet printed by Campus Crusade in 1971.  You can borrow mine, if you want to.

Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby
We went through the workbook and class at First Baptist New Orleans, years ago.  This link is the paperback version.  It's about more than just prayer, but it informs a mature prayer life.

Sit, Walk, Stand by Watchman Nee
Does not talk about prayer so much per se.  But it talks about living the way God wants us to live, and covers prayer (and our attitudes and services) in that context.  Warning: it is translated from Chinese and a little difficult to read.

Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I love the depth of Bonhoeffer's thoughts and writings.  He comes from a more liturgical background than I, and so this book is a little more "high church" than I would like.  But the spirit and insight of the author are compelling.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
Especially books 2 and 3.  That's where the author discusses the inner life of saints (including prayer) and a saint's place in the world (including suffering.)

The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
Not really about prayer.  It's about a saint's relationship to God, and it hits upon prayer in key places.  If I remember correctly.

Personal Disciple-Making by Christopher Adsit
I read this twenty years ago.  I was stunned and overwhelmed by it.  I was still a young Christian.  The disciple-making process he laid out was too hard to be doable, in my opinion.  But the vision of Christian maturity was amazing, wonderful, awe-inspiring, and convicting.  I loaned this book out and never got it back.  I seem to remember that the chapters on prayer and fellowship were particularly good.  I can't say for certain, but I think that my whole fourth point came out of that book, although maybe indirectly.

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