By James Seaton
“If we were really convinced that prayer changes the way God acts, and that God does bring about remarkable changes in the world in response to prayer, as scripture repeatedly teaches that he does, then we would pray much more than we do.” – Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology
I write this blog post not as a self-righteous super omega prayer warrior who has ripped apart the heavens with cries of worship to God. Rather, I write this as someone who has often attempted to go about life on his own without calling upon his loving, all-knowing father to help him.
As a hip hop fan, I even acknowledge how the world might understand the power of prayer more than I. Big Sean in Sunday Morning Jetpack states, “This feel like my Sunday morning jetpack / Feel like I sent the prayers up and got blessed back, whoa.” To an extent, he understands that blessings come from above. In his album, Damn, Kendrick Lamar repeatedly utters the statement, “Ain’t nobody praying for me.” At the root, Kendrick is crying out for help. He wants someone else to call on God to help him fight against lust and loneliness.
But recently, the action of prayer has taken a lot of heat. Those who have lost loved ones, especially to instances like terrorism or police brutality, have given up on prayer and instead resorted solely to actions like fighting for changed policies. Many of these people, and perhaps yourself, might be wondering: what is prayer, and is it really effective?
According to the Bible, prayer is a respectful, loving conversation with God that flows from a personal relationship with him. It is a means to ask God questions and receive his answers, not in the way we want them but in the way that God ordains them to be answered — all so that we can know him better and walk with him.
The first part of that definition is respectful, loving conversation with God that flows from a personal relationship with Him. I’ve found that the best way to view this is through the lens of the ideal parent to child relationship.
In the ideal parent-child relationship, we as children show respect to our parents because they give birth to us, provide for us, and love us even when we do not act like we love them. Parents are mentors, protectors, and friends whom we can lean on in the most trying times. In the same way, God is our father (Matthew 6:9 ESV), our sustainer (Psalms 55:22 ESV), our teacher (John 6:45 ESV), and our friend (John 15:15 ESV). But while our birth parents are imperfect humans, God embodies the role of a parent perfectly and wholly in several ways.
The first human beings Adam and Eve started off in perfect relationship with God, communing with him in the garden of Eden. But after disobeying God’s command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a wall emerged separating us from God. Think of a time you disobeyed your parents and made them upset at you. It’s awkward, and that’s kind of what happened.
But God, being merciful, sent his son Jesus Christ down to Earth to die for our sins and resurrect, breaking that silence and separation between us and the father. Thus, both a personal relationship with God and the ability to pray are gifts from God borne out of sacrifice. Instead of having to ask a person in good standing with God to ask Him for something, we can go to Him ourselves without shame (Hebrews 4:16 ESV).
Therefore, every time we pray, we pray in gratitude for our ability to even speak to God. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus outlined how to start prayer by saying, “Our father in heaven / hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9 ESV), which means “let your name be treated with reverence.”
Prayer also means to ask. We ask our Earthly parents for small things like money or the ability to go on a field trip. Likewise, we ask God for both small and large things because we know that he can orchestrate that.
If we don’t ask our parents, they can’t necessarily know what we need. In contrast, even if we don’t ask God for what we need, he still knows our desires. Regardless, he wants us to bring our requests before him because that is a natural component of being in a relationship.
Though God knows everything and can respond to our prayers, He doesn’t necessarily answer them all the way we might expect. That leads to the next part of the definition of prayer: a means to ask God questions and receive his answers, not in the way we want them but in the way that God ordains them to be answered.
God hears all prayers but only guarantees answers to those who are in relationship with him (John 15:7 ESV). People who do not believe in God can pray and may, at some points, receive an answer, but it is only out of God’s mercy. Think of it this way: Are your parents more likely to respond to the request of some random stranger off the street or their child, whom they love and have brought into the world?
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2 ESV).
The problem is sin: disobedience, mistakes, or rebellion. It is sin that leads perpetrators in society to commit crimes against people we express our “thoughts and prayers” for. It is also sin that may block God from responding to us.
Additionally, a reason that relationship is so crucial in prayer is that it allows us to know what God wants for us, or what his will is. A will is, put simply, a plan or desire. For example, our earthly parents want us to be successful in school and be safe. That is their will for us.
When we understand what our parents want for us, we are able to ask for things that our parents are likely to respond to. The same thing goes for God. As we pray to him, we find out more about what he wants for our lives. If we pray and find that we are called to play basketball, for example, we might ask him for scholarship money to go to a training camp instead of something un-aligned with his will, such as an internship at a doctor’s office.
Continuing with that example, God may or may not give us that scholarship money, or maybe not when we think we need it. If he does not, we must trust that he knows better than us. In the Bible, a very righteous man named Job who was in good standing with God lost everything: wife, kids, home, livestock, and more. Yet, he did not curse God. Instead, he admitted that the Lord gives and takes away. Still, blessed be his name (Job 1:21).
This idea may be hard to reconcile, but we must understand that God gave us the gift of prayer for one ultimate purpose: that we can know him better and walk with him.
Yes, we may ask our earthly parents for things, and they may grant them to us, but at the end of the day, I want to grow closer to and better understand my parents. How did they become the people they are now? What can I learn from them? God, above all, desires that we be with him; after all, that is why Jesus gave his life.
“…through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on Earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
Redemption, reconciliation, relationship. A bringing back to himself. A renewed walk with him, made possible by salvation (1 Timothy 2:4). That is God’s desire for us. God wants us to find peace, joy, and rest in knowing him.
Prayer is not some magic trick that God, the genie, performs for a select few people. It is also not a powerless casting of words into the wind. It is powerful because it is a way to recognize and understand God’s work in our lives. It is learning more about our father, increasing our trust in the one who watches over us. It is loving the one who made us and already knows what we need.
So today, if you have 10 or 15 minutes, stop what you’re doing and exercise the awesome gift you’ve been given!