Several years ago, I asked God to teach me how to pray. I was working as a minister at the time, and as I read more and more about the lives of spiritually strong people, I came to understand that prayer was an essential part of their lives. To have power in Christ was to pray.
Feeling particularly powerless myself, it seemed like a good idea to ask God for help. So I did.
Nothing happened. I didn’t get some magical insight. I didn’t suddenly see things start changing in my favor. I even tried naming and claiming a few dreams only to seem them tagged and bagged for burial.
In short, the whole power-in-prayer experiment ended with a thud. I moved on to other pursuits that I had more control over – reading, writing, developing my abilities as a communicator. I developed the influence I wanted with people, but I still lacked the spiritual oomph I longed for.
It wasn’t until I actually started praying every day, at the prompting of my wife, that I began to understand prayer. And by understand, I don’t mean have the ABCs and 123s of what you should do to have a powerful prayer life. Candidly, you can’t read a book and learn how you should pray any more than you can read a book and learn how to love your spouse. You may get some great tips and some things to keep in mind, but there’s no substitute for doing when it comes to developing a discipline.
Anyway, lately, I’ve come to appreciate prayer more and more as an essential part of my relationship with Jesus. Part of it comes from experience, part of it comes from the fact that my pastor, Kevin Myers, has called our church – and specifically the men of the church – into a season of greater power in prayer, which means calling the church to pray more and more as a discipline.
I wish I could effectively explain what I’ve learned, but there’s really not enough words or sense in my head to make it cogent. It’s like trying to explain why ice cream tastes awesome or why your kids are the smartest, most amazing ones on the planet. It’s really tough to make other people understand.
But one thing I have learned came from this morning. Rachel and I prayed together as we almost always do, but Rachel felt a need to go deeper in our prayers. So we went for a walk. We do that from time to time, just take to the sidewalks and streets near our home, talking out loud to God and whatever random stranger happens to pass us. This morning, we happened to be moved to pray for a situation where we’d gotten some tough news just before we left the house. We were disappointed by what we’d heard, and that disappointment was filtering into our prayers.
Well, it was filtering into my prayers. And God arrested my thoughts and reminded me of 2 Samuel 12:15-23.
I didn’t actually remember the exact Scripture reference. I’m not that smart. What God said was, “Remember how David prayed for his son, even though he knew the boy was going to die? He knew the outcome, but he still prayed for a different one because he understood that prayer can change outcomes. He only quit praying once the outcome was final.”
It struck me that I often quit praying before the outcome is final. In fact, I quit praying whenever I perceive the outcome as settled. What I mean is, long before something is truly determined, I make a determination in my mind that it’s over, and I quit praying about it, often saying things like, “Well, I guess that’s God’s will.”
In short, I often operate like a Christian fatalist: The universe is broken and things rarely work out like we want. God just wants us to accept that our home is in heaven and we won’t be satisfied until we get there. So let’s just huddle up and pray for the end to come quick so we can go on home to glory.
To be candid, that’s not faith. That’s metaphysical claptrap, and it’s the exact opposite of intimacy with God. God may will things, but He’s not above changing His mind. He did it with Moses. He did it a lot with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. There were just as many times when He didn’t change His mind, but the point of prayer isn’t about securing outcomes; it’s about securing our intimacy with the Father.
We often run away from that intimacy with God when we refuse to pray for things that seem settled. We’ve somehow turned submission to His sovereignty into a separation in our relationship. I know I have; instead of running to Him in prayer and connecting with Him, I turn away from prayer as though I’m doing God a favor by not bugging him.
If anything, today’s revelation made the stories of the persistent widow and the annoying neighbor make so much more sense. In the widow’s story, she felt like her son had been wronged by a judge, so she pestered him day and night for genuine justice. She kept hammering away until she got what she wanted. In the neighbor’s story, he had unexpected guests show up at his house, so he needed to borrow bread from next door. He kept hammering away until the neighbor gave him what he needed.
I’ve heard these stories taught before, and they’ve always been about being “faithful” to pray, but respecting God’s will for the outcome. If those stories were retold using the actual understanding we have from many of our churches, they would be rather short; in fact the widow’s would go like this:
The widow would ask for justice. The judge would say, “It’s my decision that it should be this way.” And the widow would say, “Oh – my bad – sorry for bothering you. Please don’t hate me.”
But Jesus instead tells us to imitate the widow and the neighbor because they go beyond being faithful. They go beyond just asking once, or maybe twice, and then passively excusing themselves for taking up so much time. They march across the line from being persistent to being a nuisance – and Jesus encourages his audience to follow their example when they pray.
This morning gave me energy I’ve not had in a long time. It gave me courage. It gave me a deeper sense that my Heavenly Father loves me more than I allow myself to believe, and that love allows me to come to Him with my most passionate hopes and dreams. He may not always answer the way I’d like, but until He answers, I have the opportunity to bring my thoughts and fears and dreams to Him in the hopes of moving His heart to move His hand.
Even when the answer is no, I’m better positioned to receive it because I’ve spent so much time being close to Him. Like David, I’ll be able to pull myself up, dust myself off, and move forward, because I’ll have done all I could while I could.
Many years after I asked, God is teaching me how to pray. But I love what I’m learning.