The paradox of prayer
We have all heard about the importance of prayer for our spiritual life. We have heard that prayer gives strength to resist temptations. We have heard stories in which prayer had the power to remove fear and instill hope. We have heard how prayer has even subdued demonic forces and how prayer literally changed people and the course of events. We have heard that prayer helps us to be more effective in our work for God and that prayer is as essential for our spiritual life as breathing is for our physical life.
We know about prayer! Yet we often do not pray.
The paradox of prayer is that while we desperately need it, we often readily avoid it. Perhaps we have become tired in a dull routine of asking God again and again to help us or grant our wishes. Perhaps we use repetitious prayer phrases that have become hollow and shallow. Perhaps we just have lost our grip on God. We know intellectually that we can ask God for anything and that nothing is impossible for God. Yet our spiritual reality often looks so very different.
Does It Really Work?
I remember vividly a young student who had listened to a presentation about the ABCs of Bible prayer1 that I had shared with a group of young people in church. About three weeks later she saw me again and was quite upset and agitated about what I had said about prayer. “It doesn’t work! What you told us is not true,” she exclaimed.
When I asked what had happened, she told me her story. She shared an apartment with another young woman, who had quite a different sense of cleanliness and order. Her roommate would leave piles of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink for days, and her sense of orderliness was at great odds with what she felt comfortable. Rather than working to improve the relationship with her roommate, she started to pray that the roommate would become more orderly. That way, it turned out, she would not have to become more patient, but the other person would have to accommodate her level of comfort.
It’s not wrong to pray for other people. After all, that’s what we do when we pray for conversions and a change of heart. But could it be that all too often our prayers, though frequently disguised in a pious cloak, are, in the final analysis, based on wrong motives? Aren’t our prayers often tainted by selfishness rather than guided by a genuine love for others?
I might pray for the conversion of my spouse because then my life will be easier. I might ask God for specific things because I have become used to a certain standard of living, and I am not content with less. I might pray for health because I am afraid of pain and do not want to live a life encumbered by illness. Perhaps I even pray for success in God’s cause because I will play a significant role in it and my influence will be strengthened if what I pray for becomes reality.
Finding the Center of Prayer
All too often we are at the center of our prayers, rather than God. All too often we use prayer as a spiritual vending machine, where everything revolves around our “want to have.” Instead of focusing on things in our prayers, we need to refocus on God and make Him central. Seeking and enjoying God’s presence in prayer is much more important than the things He gives us.
Could it be that we need to rediscover prayer that is pleasing to God?2 Such prayer begins with personal communion with God rather than with our list of wishes and requests. When our wishes are not anchored in a living relationship with Him, they reflect more our desires and our ideas of well-being than God’s will. But once we understand that our relationship with God and our adoration of His character is the center hub of our prayers our prayers regain a totally new focus. We begin to think and pray from God’s perspective and start to view our requests and wishes and even our whole life and circumstances through His eyes.
This is what biblical characters successfully did. They give us an example to emulate. When a great multitude of enemies threatened to destroy the kingdom of Judah, and King Jehoshaphat did not know how to prevail against such overwhelming enemy forces, he started his prayer not by listing his great need for help or by asking God to do something. Instead he focused on God and His abilities and started to recount God’s faithfulness by retelling God’s saving acts in past history (cf. 2 Chron. 20:5-12). “Our eyes are upon You,” he ends his prayer (verse 12).
Rather than focusing on the difficulties before him, Jehoshaphat focused on the One who is the Master, even of our difficulties.
Looking at our reality from God’s perspective, our difficulties appear in a new light. When we consciously think about God’s character, His qualities and abilities, and express our adoration for them, our prayers are filled with new spiritual life. Suddenly they have an element of reverence and admiration. No longer are our problems the center of our prayers—God is the center. Such prayer does not bring God down to our level. Rather, it lifts us up to His presence. Prayer does not change God. It changes us.
Such God-focused prayer allows us to become honest with ourselves and with God. In the light of His love and His holiness we begin to see ourselves, our desires, and needs differently. Understood that way, prayer becomes a premier expression of our love for God!
Catching a Glimpse of His Love
Why would God even answer our prayers? When we approach God in prayer, we have no résumé to recommend us. We have no track record of impressive accomplishments. We don’t have exemplary love or wisdom that would commend us as being worthy. We have nothing that would place God in our debt or would obligate His favor toward us.
So why would God answer our prayers? The answer is simple: “Because God is his own reason for answering. Prayer finds its hope not in the qualifications of the one praying, but in the character and plan of the God who is hearing.”3 God answers prayer because He is love and He tenderly loves us. And because God is God, He delights to give us far more and beyond what we can understand and request. God first and foremost grants us the blessing of His presence. And in that relationship God delights, if we ask great things of Him.
Such a prayer relationship with God savors time spent in the presence of our Maker and Redeemer. Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to an instant prayer mentality. Our culture does not support a pace of life that naturally cultivates prayer that takes time. Taking time means learning to wait.
But our life rhythms are more often set by microwaves and McDonald’s. When we bring God our prayer wish list, we expect to receive His answers in mere seconds. We want it instantly: “Give me patience, Lord. And please give me patience right now!” we whine. And while God listens to our hurried and often selfish “McPrayers,” they will do little for us in terms of nourishing our spiritual life or opening our ears to God’s will. Hasty prayers will not have the profound impact that comes only through perseverance in prayer.
Jesus did not live in a fast-paced culture like ours, but He faced an even more pressing time challenge. He had only three short years to complete His plan of salvation. Only a few months of ministry meant that a lot of people would go unhealed, untaught, and undiscipled. But at the end of His life Jesus could still declare: “It is finished.”
While perhaps He did not accomplish all He could have, He nevertheless accomplished all He needed to. And prayer helped Jesus to discern His priorities in the quiet moments of communion with His Father. It helped crystallize the important priorities and dissipate the merely urgent ones. Spending prayer time in the company of our Creator and Savior God will also have a profound impact on our existence.
Once we start meeting regularly with God in prayer we change. Our values change. Some things that once seemed so important become less significant and lose their fascination, while others gain new significance. We will see people differently. Prayer in the presence of God is a most profitable means of obtaining a pure heart. It gives us new direction and motivation to see things from God’s perspective. Such prayer is a wonderful opportunity to allow Him to shape us into His image.
1 For this and many other practical prayer ideas, see Frank M. Hasel, Longing for God: A Prayer and Bible Journal (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2017), pp. 121–124, but see also the important prerequisite “Prayer That Pleases God,” on pp. 43-45.
2 Ibid., pp. 42–45.
3 Paul David Tripp, A Shelter in the Time of Storm: Meditations on God and Trouble (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2009), p. 53.
Frank M. Hasel, originally from Germany, serves as an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference.