By M. Thaxter Dickey
Undoubtedly it’s not been long since you heard a sermon on prayer, read an article on prayer, or determined to improve your prayer habits. And that’s good because if there is a secret ingredient of success as a disciple of Christ, prayer is it. So how are you doing? How well do you understand the purpose, operation and practice of prayer? Here’s a quiz that may help you check up on your understanding of prayer.
What is Prayer?
Some define prayer as talking to God, and it is indeed a precious privilege to know that His ears are open to the prayers of the righteous (1 Pet. 3:13). Prayer is not a solitary pursuit. No one really prays who has no sense of God’s presence. We have time for conversation with our friends. Can we not find time at God’s invitation to converse with Him?
Others have defined prayer as a wish turned to heaven. It is not just wishful thinking or daydreaming but a concentrated effort to put one’s problems into the hands of Him who can do all things. Thus, Paul speaks of striving in prayer (Rom. 15:30; Col. 4:12). Righteous prayer which avails much is fervent and not a casual thing. It requires effort.
In a similar vein, Paul portrays prayer as a crucial tactic in the spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:18). It is the battleground upon which we conquer our spirit and subject it to God. Some complain that prayer is difficult and wish that it came easily to them and even suppose that it does come easily to others. But this is not the biblical picture. We pray only with great effort, for Satan strives to prevent us.
What is the Purpose of Prayer?
It is not to get for us that which we wish. Prayer is not an Aladdin’s lamp which we rub to get free wishes. God is not a gift machine which we manipulate to our own whims through prayer. This is the difference between magic and religion. Magic endeavors to bring the supernatural under the control of man, whereas religion is man’s effort to make himself pleasing to God. Prayer is thus conversation with God through which we conform our wills to His standards of holiness and come to agree with His plans for our lives.
Prayer is not for the purpose of debating with God, though Moses did apparently change God’s mind with his prayer for Israel (Ex. 32:9-14), and though prayer is effective, accomplishing much (Jas. 5:16), prayer is not out arguing or out thinking God. Who could be so presumptuous? The primary purpose of prayer is not to change God’s will, but to bring our will in line with His.
Prayer is not to be a sermon to either God or man. We may well follow the example of Bible prayers and rehearse that which God has accomplished and promised. But the purpose of prayer is communication of our spirit with God not the noble purpose of converting souls or teaching men. Effective public prayers are distinguished from those which leave us disinterested by this. They are spoken to God and not to an audience of men and thus lead us to think of God and not ourselves.
How Serious Is It If We Do Not Pray?
Prayerlessness is sin. Samuel recognized this at the time the Israelites offended him by asking for a king in his place. But he continued to pray for them rather than commit the sin of prayerlessness (1 Sam. 12:23). Prayer is a privilege, but it is also an obligation, and failure to pray is sin. We should so name it in our lives that we might be the more determined to pray.
Paul commands us to be vigilant in all manner of prayers (Eph. 6:17,18; 1 Tim. 2: 1). Failure to do so leaves us vulnerable to the onslaught of Satan. No sermon should ever be preached, or lesson taught, or trip begun, or task undertaken, or day begun without prayer. To do so is to foolishly risk temptation and spiritual, if not even earthly, failure.
What Hinders Our Prayers and Causes Prayerlessness?
The primary hindrance to prayer is sin. As Adam ran from God in the garden because of consciousness of sin, so we today avoid God in prayer when we are burdened with unrepented sins. If we love a sin more than we love God, He will not hear us (Psa. 66:18). When you have trouble praying, take spiritual inventory, and it’s likely you’ll find some sin lurking in the recesses of your soul. Root it out and your prayers will again flow to God.
1 John 3:22 teaches the positive lesson that God hears those who obey Him. By implication it teaches that He does not hear those who disobey Him. In the case of Cornelius God responded to the prayers of a righteous man who was not in a covenant relationship with Him. But His only answer was to refer him to a preacher that he might hear the gospel and have an opportunity to respond to it. I doubt that a man who is out of covenant relationship with God can effectively pray for recovery from illness or intercede on behalf of another.
James 1:5-8 reminds us that those who ask doubting will not receiving anything of the Lord. One who doubts will not pray as he should. He will not persist in prayer. Nor will God hear prayers offered in doubt. The infamous prayer of the agnostic perfectly illustrates the foolish ineffectiveness of the prayer offered in doubt. “God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul, from hell, if there be a hell.”
Another hindrance to our prayers is faulty personal relationships. Jesus taught that our sins are forgiven as we forgive others. This is the one lesson from the model prayer that He singled out for explanation after the prayer (Matt. 6:14,15). Many who would never drink or steal or murder will hinder their prayers by bearing a grudge against another. It’s a good bargain that God offers to us. If we forgive others their small offenses against us, He will forgive the great offenses we’ve committed against Him. Can you afford to reject so generous an offer?
Not just a lack of forgiveness, but any faulty personal relationship will hinder our prayers. Especially is this so of those with whom we are most intimate. Neither man nor woman can pray effectively if his heart is wrong against his spouse (1 Pet. 3:7), parents or children.
Another serious threat to prayer, as indeed it is to our entire relationship to God, is pride. Those who do not see their need will not ask. Further, God abhors the proud (Prov. 6:17) while His eyes are upon the humble. This is easy for us to understand. We enjoy helping those who ask us gently but resist those who are arrogant toward us. The temptation to pride is subtle. Some have even been known to grow proud of their humility. It is a difficult lesson for us to learn of our dependence and weakness and to ask as children that God deliver us. But we must become as children to enter the kingdom (Matt. 18:3).
When, How, and How Much Should We Pray?
Jesus tells us that we ought always to pray and never to grow weary in it (Lk. 18:2-8). Paul, a man of like passions to ourselves, taught the same lesson (1 Thess. 5:17). They did not mean that we were to give up daily life and become monks for the Lord’s sake, devoting ourselves in this way to prayer. Rather, they mean. that we should never lose the habit of prayer, that we should be ready always, at the blink of an eye as it were, to speak to God of that which is on our hearts. This requires living every day with a keen awareness of the presence of God.
There are times that are especially advantageous for prayer. It is a good idea to begin the day with prayer. This Jesus did (Mk. 1:35). A few moments at day’s beginning can set the tone for the entire day. And were there not many plans you had for this day that needed the Lord’s blessings? Likewise evening is a time for prayer. Were there not this day things which you need to speak to your Heavenly Father about before you sleep? Dare you sleep this evening before you’ve made yourself right with the eternal God who sees all things?
We ought to pray before important decisions as Jesus did all night before selecting the Twelve (Lk. 6:12,13). Our lives are filled with decisions, and the sad truth is that almost all of them must be made on the basis of inadequate information. Always after we’ve decided and set things in motion, we see more clearly the correct choice-and often it’s not the one we made. Can we, then, afford to neglect so great help as God offers?
We need to pray in times of temptation. If we prayed and thought of God during times of temptation we’d not fall prey to sin. Sin loses its power the moment we see God and His glorious holiness. The old adage about pausing and counting to ten in times of anger was good advice, for the delay before taking action allows more reasonable thoughts to prevail. Of even greater value than counting to ten is prayer. Jesus taught His disciples to pray that they might be kept from temptation. Do you fear temptation as you should? What is it that you pray will not come to you: poverty, old age, illness, ridicule, death? Above all these we should fear, and pray that we are kept from sin.
For What Can We Rightly Pray?
Remember, prayer is not just presenting God with a list of our desires and waiting for Him to fill our order. But we are encouraged to pray for specific blessings.
We are to pray for others. Paul commands us to pray for rulers (1 Tim. 2:1). This command indicates that God is active in the affairs of nations today. The best national defense is not missiles or ships but prayers. Likewise solutions to domestic problems are to be found, not in political rhetoric, but in prayer and a return to God-given values.
We are commanded to pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:43, 44). This is the unique characteristic of the Christian. He loves his enemy and prays for him. Jesus showed us the way by dying for us on the cross while we were yet sinful, unlovely and unlovable. But He died not just for you and me but for all men who will come to Him. Dare we hate and despitefully use someone whom Jesus loved so?
We should pray for the salvation of men as did Paul (Rom. 10:1). Our relationships with those outside the body of Christ would be far different if we spent hours in prayer over their soul’s salvation. We’d soon seek out opportunities to evangelize.
We can rightly pray for the spiritual growth of others (Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9; 1 Thess. 1:11). I know I could benefit from more prayers on my behalf by spiritual men and women. Couldn’t you? Let us do for one another what we can. And this striving together in prayers will be of more benefit than all the “Hello’s” and “How are you’s” we’ve ever said, though we shouldn’t leave these unsaid.
We should pray more specifically than we do for the physical ailments of others. Those leading public prayers should make it a point to learn the names of those in need of prayers and make specific mention of them. And we can pray directly for their recovery. And in our prayers we need not limit God to working through the hands of doctors.
We are of course entitled by our relationship with God to pray for ourselves. But what manner of things may we ask for ourselves? We should pray for forgiveness, of course (Matt. 6:12). We should pray for wisdom-not just in matters of Bible study but in the practical wisdom needed to live rightly in this present world (Jas. 1:5). We can pray for our daily bread (Matt. 6:11). This means we pray for necessities not for a superabundance. Don’t be deceived by the present trend which distorts the gospel to promise wealth in return for serving God. Jesus didn’t make such promises even when multitudes thought He might. Instead He promised difficulties and heart break for those who would become His disciples (Lk. 14). We may pray for protection from bodily harm or poverty or other disasters. However, I think we should exercise great care in praying to God for material possessions. We cannot ask for these things out of selfishness and expect to receive them (Jas. 4:3). It is wrong to pray to God for a grand new home thinking only of its pleasure to you. It would, however, be right to pray for a new car if the one you presently drive is unsafe and unreliable in taking you about the Lord’s business. In short, we may pray for anything which relates to participation in and enjoyment of eternal redemption by ourselves or any other man.
What Are the Benefits of Prayer?
God, of course, answers prayer. Thus we may escape temptation through prayer or regain our health or be preserved on the highway through prayer. But there are other benefits to prayer, too. I don’t intend to reduce prayer to a psychological exercise as some have done, but we ought to recognize all of its benefits.
We are drawn closer to God through prayer. Someone has said that prayer is like pulling on an anchor stuck to the bottom (Heb. 6:12). You feel as if you’re pulling it in, but all the while you’re pulling yourself to it. Thus in prayer you may well be putting your needs before God, but fervent honest prayer will all the while bring you closer to Him.
Prayer can give us a feeling of forgiveness. Of course feelings can be wrong and the only way to know for certain you are forgiven is to comply with God’s conditions for forgiveness. Nonetheless feeling forgiven is important and prayer makes that possible. We need to feel renewed that we might with enthusiasm be about our Father’s business (Heb. 9:14). Our souls are often like a new car. We are so careful when it’s new to avoid any scratches or even dust. But after it’s a year old we no longer are so fussy about where we drive it or how it looks. Thus, if we had no way to scrub up our souls and make them new again the motive for doing good would be diminished. But we can be made new and pure again each day through prayer and thus maintain our incentive for acting soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.
Prayer puts things in perspective. Some things we thought were so very important lose significance when we take them to God in prayer. The secret to accomplishing any great thing is not to lose sight of the big picture. We can get so caught up in the details of a task that they overwhelm us. Living faithfully to God is a great task and we often get so caught up in the grubby details of life that we lose sight of the big picture of God’s scheme of redemption. We forget, in our anxiety over bills and home repairs and children’s school, that we are bound for heaven. Prayer sets these things in their right place again.
How well do you understand the purpose and practice of prayer? Are you praying as you ought or are you missing out on the blessings of prayer? Let us today renew ourselves in prayer to God the Father who is the source of our strength and our blessings. Adoring and thanking Him, let us place our burdens and petitions and our lives in His competent, loving hand.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 20, pp. 624-626
October 17, 1985