Admittedly, prayer many times doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, like you’re actually doing anything. But we also must admit that our actions, in the long term, ultimately don’t accomplish what we’re after either. Both can feel futile, like you’re investing too much energy into something that doesn’t show real results. Perhaps then we need to reevaluate the results we’re after, as well as our assumptions about prayer. But before you call me a heretic, click here and take a moment to catch up on yesterday’s post.
The interesting thing about prayer in the Bible is that, from what I can find, it’s never fully taught or expounded upon, the lone exception being Matthew chapter 6.5-15. For that reason, no scripture is more referenced or studied when it comes to prayer. Traditionally known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, I prefer to call it “The Model Prayer”, because that’s exactly how it was delivered by Christ: a model for his followers to emulate. If you ever had any church experience in your past, you may even be able to quote it. The great thing about this passage is that Jesus didn’t just drop the prayer in isolation, but surrounded it with both set-up and follow-up teachings that provide a more practical structure than a simple recitation would allow. Time and space won’t permit full coverage of these teaching, but I would like to focus on a couple of points.
One thing you may notice here (and really the rest of the Bible as well) is that prayer is simply assumed. Jesus used the phrase “when you pray” three different times. That’s where he begins. He doesn’t ramp up by first urging them to pray, but instead builds upon the fact that they already do, despite some wrong motives that he had to address. Think about it though: Do you ever remember a figure in the Bible who debated with him or herself about the merits of prayer, whether or not they should even pray at all? Even those who took issue with God still prayed to him, albeit in protest, and even then God would honor it. The fact that prayer is essential and automatic is an ancient truth that we’ve allowed to fade into the past. Today, before we even make the attempt, some of us need intellectual conviction and the support of well-studied scholars as to the reasons why we should pray. That’s neither the testimony of Scripture nor of believers throughout the centuries. We just need to pray. That’s where God wants us to begin.
Another interesting statement that Jesus makes is this: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6.8) For those of you still on the fence, you may read that and ask, “If God knows, then why should I even pray in the first place?” I believe this comes from a wrong understanding of what prayer is, probably a foundational error that lingers within all the assumptions and ideas we’ve ever had about it. I also believe this is the main reason why Jesus gave us this prayer. In fact, in Luke’s parallel passage, the Model Prayer comes in response to a disciple’s request: “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11.1) Maybe this should be our attitude as well.
So what is that error? The assumption that the point of prayer is to get something. Most of us believe prayer is an activity of acquisition. We request, we acquire, we move on. The Model Prayer shows us differently. Notice the items Jesus uses as examples: daily bread, forgiveness, deliverance. These are not one-and-done items, but rather needs that spring up every day, every moment. Jesus further emphasizes this when he says “give us this day”. So if prayer is nothing more than trying to get something from God, it will no doubt become and exhausting task to maintain. Instead, God wants us to see the bigger point. Prayer isn’t about acquisition, but submission. Prayer moves us away from the realm of material need into the realm of spiritual need. It makes us realize that we don’t need things or results, but God himself. He is the one who supplies our true needs, the ones we could never even think to ask for, nor have the endurance to try.
When prayer is seen in this manner, we put the action in God’s hands instead of our own, because we understand that only he can accomplish the results that are actually needed. To be sure, this doesn’t negate human action. Indeed, the greatest movements of God’s people spring from a right understanding and application of prayer, which then drives them into the world as agents of change. But they also know that true and ultimate change is not within their power. Despite our best efforts, the world is no better off than when we began, and it never will be this side of eternity. But if we elevate our expectations, and the results we desire are for the hearts and minds of people to be tuned into their continual and eternal need for God, then the point of prayer has not been lost on us.
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