Prayer… but not as we’ve known it
Our natural human response when facing something major, is to turn to people and ask them to pray. In November 2012 our fit and healthy twenty year old daughter had an intracranial haemorrhage out of the blue. She was diagnosed with an Arterio-Venous Malformation (AVM) in her brain. After ten days in hospital, we faced a long recovery period and treatment – with substantial risks. In early 2014 she underwent the first of these treatments. We appreciated the many messages of support from friends and we had a very strong sense of peace, knowing that this was our Father’s timing and way forward with this issue. And through it all, things that I’d seen in the past about prayer, became even clearer.
Even though we didn’t ask anybody to pray, we still knew that many were praying. Most people pray when things “go wrong” (according to our very limited and biased perception of things) so…
Catholics light a candle and pray to Mary and other dead “saints”.
Buddhists pray to their ancestors and Buddha.
Jews pray to HaShem.
Muslims pray to Allah, five times a day.
Hindus pray to Brahman, Krishna and many others.
New Agers pray to angels and spirits of love, creation, and the universe.
Christians pray to Jesus.
Prayer is not the exclusive domain of Christians; people in every religion pray. While we truly appreciate the concern and love that causes people to pray in a religious context, it needs to be recognised that prayer, in and of itself, does absolutely nothing. It is only God (the true God) who does anything! It is only what is initiated and inspired by God that will achieve anything. Too often our prayers are initiated and inspired by ourselves or others, and not by God at all, and so they only serve to make us feel better because we feel we are doing something useful.
I don’t believe for one minute that I am a great pray-er or “intercessor”. I know I still have much to learn in this area, and so I have struggled with writing this article. And yet I believe I am to write what I have learned and raise questions about what we think prayer is, because so much of what I see and hear from others about prayer seems to be religious jargon and religious acts based on our religious perceptions and not true prayer at all.
I’m aware that some of what I’m going to say here may offend some, but if it causes you to stop and think and ask God to show you His ways and His heart where prayer is concerned, then it may be worth the risk of offense and misunderstanding.
Even though we profess to know that only God can do anything, we still try to do something! And prayer is a fine example of that – praying makes us feel that we are “helping” and those who are prayed for often feel comforted because they know that people have prayed. And so prayer meetings meet… prayer chains bind… and people enjoy feeling like they are doing something useful. But too often this “praying” and this “doing” originates from us and so it achieves nothing except to satisfy a self-gratifying desire either to pray, or be prayed for.
And, even worse, when God in His grace and mercy does do something on our behalf, what happens? People usually tell everybody and take the credit for it by claiming it to be an answer to their prayers… as though it was them that caused God to do something! Oh, may God forgive our pride and arrogance… His work and His intervention is because of His love, grace and mercy; not because of us and what we do, so that not one of us can boast or take the credit or glory for it (Eph. 2:8,9).
Often we don’t even stop to ask our Father what He desires. Instead of asking Him what to pray, we instead ask others to pray and even tell them what to pray. When we are listening to our Father’s heart instead of our own heart, then we are often led in ways that we would not expect! For example, the evening after our daughter’s brain surgery, she had a tonic-clonic seizure which caused the medical staff to drop everything. They called the resuscitation and crash unit and 10 or so staff were around her within a minute. As my daughter was recovering from this, I didn’t feel that Father wanted me to pray for her or ask anything for her. Instead, He wanted me to talk with Him about a young man who was in the bed next to her. He was in a bad way after suffering a stroke, but to our minds, I should have been praying for my child, not somebody else’s!
Several years ago friends of ours moved towns and put their house on the market. To us, the obvious need was for their house to sell and they asked people to pray that it would sell. Months went by and it didn’t sell. One day when I was reminding Father about this, He stopped me and asked, “Why are you asking Me to sell their house?” I stated the obvious: “Because they need it to be sold…”. He said, “Have you asked ME if that is what they need?” Of course, I hadn’t, I’d presumed that I knew. After admitting this, He told me I was to pray for our friends themselves, and not for their house to sell. He wanted me to pray with Him that they would learn what it was that He needed them to learn through their circumstances. As it turned out, their house never did sell and things didn’t work out in the new town, instead they returned to their house after six months. They would have had no home to return to if it had sold.
Christians seem to like to share “prayer requests”, even about people that they do not know – often bordering on gossip – it can be a time of prying rather than praying. Our relationships and friendships are brought about by God for a reason. But even with intimate knowledge of what is going on in our friend’s and family’s lives, we still do not really know how or what to pray. Our praying simply must be inspired by God’s Spirit and not by our own spirit or by apparent needs.
Many seem to have the idea that the more people who pray, the more likely it is that God will hear and the prayer will be answered. Where does this idea come from??? This is a human idea, that more is best, bigger is better, and that large numbers equal success. It is an earthly concept, and not heavenly. To some prayer seems even more important than God; they say “I need prayer!” instead of the truth: “I need God”.
It is just our natural, human, earthly way of viewing things to think that “many” or “more” means effectiveness and therefore the more who pray the better, and large numbers will mean success. From our perspective Gideon and his army being reduced in numbers was a really stupid idea, because we think that bigger is better. But our mathematics are all wrong. We need to have our minds (and arithmetic!) transformed so that we see things from our Father’s heavenly perspective instead of from our own earthly perspective.
From a heavenly perspective, to add is to subtract (John 3:30), the greatest is the least (Matt. 11:11), to be big is to be little (Luke 9:48), to lose is to find (Matt. 10:39), to be weak is to be strong (2 Cor. 12:9), and to lose all is to gain All (Phil. 3:8). This is the complete opposite to our ways of thinking, because God’s ways are far superior to ours!
Lots of Prayer
Jesus taught, “Whenever you are praying, you shall not be verbose like the heathen, for they think that they are heard by speaking much” (Matt. 6:7 Aramaic Bible). “Speaking much” could be translated in our vernacular as “talking a lot” or “many prayers”. Jesus said that this is what people in other religions (the “heathen”) do; they think their prayers will be answered by praying a lot or speaking a lot. Many Christians today are no different; they share “prayer requests” to try to get “much speaking” happening – as if that will cause God to suddenly hear and move on someone’s behalf! But Jesus went on to say, “Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask Him!” That speaks of TRUST rather than desperation. That speaks of peace rather than fear. That speaks of knowing your Father and understanding that what He desires is what is most important, rather than trying to convince Him of what you think is important.
The example of Elijah in 1 Kings 18 can teach us a lot. The people prayed and prayed to their god all day long and yet nothing happened. Then, in stark contrast to “all day with many people praying”, one person, Elijah, said in less than a minute: “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make known today that You are God in Israel and that I’m Your servant and have done all these things by Your instructions. Answer me, Lord! Answer me! Then these people will know that You, Lord, are God and that You are winning back their hearts.” And God responded immediately.
Why did Elijah do what he did and ask what he asked? Because God had instructed him to: “I have done all these things by Your instructions“. And yet with us today, how many people think they know best and basically tell God what He needs to do for them in “prayer”, instead of first asking God what HE wants to do? The people praying to Baal were asking him to do what THEY wanted; but Elijah first communicated with God and found out what HE wanted.
Even Jesus said, “I can guarantee this truth: The Son cannot do anything on His own. He can do only what He sees the Father doing. Indeed, the Son does exactly what the Father does…. I can’t do anything on My own. As I listen [to the Father], I make My judgments. My judgments are right because I don’t try to do what I want but what the One who sent Me wants” (John 5:19,30). This offends those who rely on themselves, but delights those who rely on God.
It is simply our pride that makes us think that we know exactly what God wants to do, and therefore what we will ask Him to do. Our prayers are often an awful revelation of our selfishness and pride. True prayer is more about hearing and listening to God, than about speaking to Him. It is more about us being changed, than things around us being changed. But so often humility of heart is lacking and so we barge on in with our requests and demands, like spoilt children who think the world is centred around them and their father must do what they ask.
Even with our own children we would consider it rude for them to tell us what to do or demand that we do what they think we should, yet in “prayer” Christians seem to think this is acceptable. As a parent, we love to have our children talk with us about their problems, their dreams and their desires, and our Father is no different. But we don’t like our children telling us exactly what we must do for them, or having them beg us for the basics of life; we expect them to know that we will do the very best we can for them. They know that; they have no need to beg for it. They know they can trust us. Is our heavenly Father any different?
In November 2014 my daughter and I were flown to another city for further treatment including radiosurgery. Our daughter decided she didn’t want to tell family or friends when she was having this done as she didn’t feel she had the energy to deal with the responses. So, out of respect for her wishes, we didn’t tell any family or friends, except for one close friend. I felt it was a great opportunity to quietly prove God’s care even when people weren’t praying for us and didn’t even know what was going on. Our trust is in God, not in other people, and certainly not in how many prayers are prayed for us!
I was very conscious of God’s peace, strength and comfort in the midst of it all. When we did tell our friends and family once it was all over, the reactions were interesting. The more religious the person, the more offended they seemed to be – they didn’t get to pray for us! However, if their praying was always initiated by the Spirit and not by self, then why would they be offended? If God hadn’t prompted them to pray, then clearly there was no need to. 🙂
We often “ask amiss” (James 4:3). God really does know what is best! Remember that the Hebrews in the wilderness kept asking and asking for what they wanted, and finally God gave it to them, “He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:15). As T. Austin-Sparks puts it, “God’s judgments are usually the confirmation of our own choices”. We can choose to accept and trust His way in faith, or we can choose to make things go our own way, to our own peril.
I grew up in a religious environment where it was customary to always pray before we made a trip anywhere; praying for protection and for safe travel etc.. It felt as though we expected the worst to happen and that prayer would somehow protect us and prevent the worst from happening. It reminds me of the dark ages when people were very superstitious and would pray and sacrifice to gods so that they would be “protected”. Why is it that so many who claim to know God, and claim to know that He is good and loving, still live in dread and fear of what might happen, instead of living in confident trust in Him and His constant loving care? He knows what we need and often provides for us even before we ask and before we even recognise His provision. We have no idea of the many times He has protected and defended us without our knowledge – He is the best Father – ever!
Many seem to have a walk of fate instead of a walk of faith. Instead of “prayer warriors” there seems to be an army of prayer worriers!
To put this attitude into context, imagine you are the parent of young children. Every time you go out in your car, your children beg you to drive safely, please protect them and look after them, and don’t let anything bad happen to them. Over and over they ask this, every time you go out! This would hurt you as a parent and you would wonder what you had done wrong for your children to distrust you so much.
Much of our praying reveals that we simply don’t trust God; it exhibits our lack of trust. The way many people talk and pray, it sounds as though they do not think that God is even capable of taking good care of His children unless we beg Him to! That’s quite an insult to any good father.
It’s not that we don’t ever feel fearful, because we are human and we do feel afraid sometimes, but we run to our Father and tell Him whenever we are scared or troubled and He comforts us. We are part of His household, part of His Family and He takes good care of us. We communicate everything to Him, as children do, but our communicating is from a place of trust instead of fear! It is a secure place of knowing that He cares, He protects, and that He is right there with us, no matter what happens. Children get frightened easily, but the more they turn to their parents for reassurance and comfort, the more trusting and confident they are.
We are born into death in this world and part of that heritage is being born into fear and being easily frightened. Fear is an attitude we must unlearn. Instead we must learn to trust! Christ has freed us from the tyranny of fear and death, so that we can live in Life and Trust. It is often only when we feel that things are out of our control that we desperately turn to God in prayer, but we need to see that we never have been, and never will be, in control. We need to be transformed into Acceptance-With-Joy instead of being Much-Afraid (from Hannah Hurnard’s allegory, “Hinds’ Feet on High Places”). Every breath we breathe is a gift from the Giver of Life and this life is intended to be a living communication of love and joy straight back to the Giver who has given us All in Christ!
“The Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants Him to.” Rom. 8:26,27.
So, what instructions do we have in the Bible about prayer? Firstly, we’re not to make a big deal out of it. Jesus didn’t say to organise a prayer chain, search for others to pray with, go and pray in a church, have a prayer meeting, or even ask people to pray with you or for you. Instead He taught: “When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private” (Matt. 6:6). This was the complete opposite of what had become acceptable and normal in their religion, where prayers were recited at least three times a day (even more on the Sabbath and on feast days) and preferably with a quorum of 10 men in a temple. Yet Jesus typically went off by Himself to pray.
The example that Jesus Himself gave us, has to mean something. And Who did Jesus appeal to? “Our Father…” Who did He teach His students to appeal to? “Our Father…” This is about personal communication between our Father and us as His children. Children know and trust their parents and are confident that the parent knows what is best, even when the child doesn’t!
In English, particularly old English, the word “pray” meant to “ask” or “beg”. For instance, in old English they would say, “Come here, I pray”. Even in the King James Version of the Bible the word “pray” was used to mean begging or asking: “Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched” (Gen. 18:4). But the word “pray” in English has now become a completely religious word; nobody uses it as “ask” any more. Regardless, true prayer is far more than simply asking for something or talking to God. There is something deeper here that we need to see, and to see it, we must go back to the original word for “prayer” used in the Hebrew….
In Hebrew, the word translated as “prayer” (tefillah) means to think, intercede and entreat and is apparently a difficult word to translate into English: “The common translation—prayer—is horribly inaccurate. Prayer [in English] implies two distinct entities, an inferior one making a request of a superior. There is another Hebrew word for this: bakashah. Similarly, worship has a word: shevach. Tefillah incorporates both these elements, but is itself neither of them. Instead, communion may be a better word…” (from https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1452805/jewish/Tefillah.htm). Communion is two-way – it is sharing heart to heart. It is not just “asking” or “much speaking”, it is far more than that. It is two sided; a sharing of emotions, desires, hopes and thoughts. Tefillah, even in Judaism today, is understood to be more about self examination than about making requests; this is quite different from our western definition of prayer.
The word translated as “pray” in Hebrew is “palal” and is the root of “tefillah”. Palal is a reflexive (reflective) word and means to think, judge, intervene, and mediate. The Hebrew understanding of the word is to examine yourself, clarify things, and judge yourself before God. This is prayer… but not as we’ve known it! When we spend time examining ourselves we often find that it is our own attitudes towards the people and circumstances we are in that need to be changed, rather than other people or situations that need changing. Communion with God helps us to see that.
We certainly do need to examine ourselves as the Spirit leads… for instance, when we ask God for something, is it because of what WE want, or is it because He has spoken to our spirit so we know what HE is wanting? Are we more concerned about ourselves being changed into the person God desires, or that circumstances and people around us be changed? Are we really searching for Him first while trusting that all these other things will be done or not done, as He sees fit (Matt. 6:33)?
True prayer is based upon trusting God! It is giving up your agenda, and taking up God’s agenda. Most importantly, true prayer is not a way to get God to do what you want. True prayer is NOT a way to get God to give you what you want, or to do what you think needs to be done.
We seem to think that prayer is all about our words, when it is more about our hearts…. Sometimes when I mention someone to Father whom I know to be in great need or difficulty, it feels as though He says, “I know, I’ve got this; don’t be concerned, it’s been dealt with already”. Other times, someone comes to mind who, as far as I know, is in no difficulty at all and yet I find I’m crying with Father for them, even though I may have no no idea why, and even no words to say. It seems that our natural, earthly knowledge is of little to no use when it comes to prayer; it may in fact be a hindrance because we tend to rely on our own knowledge of people and situations instead of relying on God’s Spirit leading us. We easily take up the appeals and missions of others because they appeal to our religious desire to do something. But true communion with God, by its very nature, must come from above and be other-worldly, heavenly, and spiritual. It must both come from, and go to, the heart of God.
So why would God even want us to ask Him for anything at all when He already knows our needs and desires, as well as His own? Because true prayer is about our co-operation, communion and partnership with God; it is a “high calling”, something that He desires to share with us! It is primarily about His desire for intimate friendship and fellowship with us: communion and communication. We share our concerns and our joys with our family and best friends, and it is exactly the same with our Father. He shares His concerns and joys with us, and we share ours with Him… it is a sharing of one heart.
The “Lord’s Prayer”
The fact is that we do not know what is best for either ourselves or for others, and so we don’t truly know what to ask for! We may humbly make requests, but we desire primarily what God wants, and not what we want. Maybe this is what it means to ask in His Name, to ask in His behalf, as Jesus taught (Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23,24,26). This was how Jesus prayed, “Not what I want, but what You want” (Luke 22:42) – He ignored His own desires, judging between what was His own human desires and what God wanted. This is to “palal” – to examine our heart in prayer.
This understanding of prayer is related to what is called “The Lord’s Prayer” in Luke 11. Jesus taught His students to examine their hearts for unforgiveness, He also taught them to ask for what God wants, not what we want: “May what You want be done on earth, just like it is in heaven” (the Greek word translated as “will” means “want”, as explained in this article: “God’s Will… But not as we’ve known it“).
The sequence of what Jesus said is interesting: “May what You want be done on earth, just like it is in heaven… keep supplying us every day with the bread we need… forgive us when we miss the mark as we also forgive all who owe us… let us not enter into testing but rescue us…” Then He immediately says, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and will say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread. For a friend of mine who is on a journey has just come, and I have nothing to put before him’. And he from within will answer, ‘Do not disturb me, the door is now closed, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and supply you with anything’? I tell you, although he will not get up and supply him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his shameless persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. So I say to you, Ask and keep on asking and it shall be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you shall find; knock and keep on knocking and the door shall be opened to you.” (Luke 11:6-9).
In this parable, God is represented as the friend in the house who, although very inconvenienced, eventually gives the Bread in response to the persistent asking. Sometimes we do need to be encouraged to keep asking, seeking and knocking, but who really represents us in this parable? Most assume that we are the friend without bread. But there were more people in this picture than just the two men. Parables often have a hidden meaning, so think about this: Are we normally referred to in the Scriptures as God’s friend or as His children?
We are His CHILDREN, born from above, and in this parable we are exactly where we are meant to be: in our Father’s house, resting in His bed! Jesus seems to have expanded on this in verses 11-13 where He went on to focus on the children, not on the friend who kept asking for Bread.
Jesus Himself is our Bread. We are not awake at midnight with nothing to feed ourselves or others with; we LIVE with the Breadmaker and Breadwinner and have no lack of food! The story seems to be speaking of two different types of asking and two different types of relationship. One asks from a position of fear and lack and does not have an intimate relationship with the Giver, while the other asks from a position of trust and abundance and lives with the Father. When we live in our Father’s house we rest in Him because we KNOW Him as “our Father”! While others may be knocking on doors at midnight because they do not have Bread to share with others, we are at rest with our Father who provides for ALL His children’s needs, even while we sleep (Ps. 127:1,2).
This raises another question. Did Jesus, as a man with needs just like us, ever ask anybody to pray for Him and His needs, or even ask anyone to pray with Him? We have no record of it if He did. We know that His followers asked for prayer, but Jesus Himself did not. He usually went off by Himself to talk with His Father. The only time when you’d think He might have really needed His friends to pray for Him was in the garden of Gethsemane. There He simply asked them to stay awake with Him, and to keep watch; and, surprisingly to us, not to pray either with Him or for Him. Why would this be? Is it possible that He was being an example to us of complete and utter trust in His Father, even in spite of what He knew was about to happen? Could it have been evidence that prayer is primarily private communication with God as He inspires, rather than a public display that man requires (Matt. 6:6)? Was it an example to us of relying on God instead of on man? Was it because He did not want his students to ask God for things according to their own natural judgement – in this case to prevent His suffering and death, just like Peter had already suggested (Matt. 16:22)?
Jesus, when He was struggling with facing His death, asked three times that He not have to go through with it (Matt. 26:37-44). That is humanity; we don’t like to suffer. “While Jesus was here on earth (as a man), He offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the One who could rescue Him from death. And God heard His prayers because of His deep reverence for God” (Heb. 5:7). It seems strange that “God heard His prayers” and yet Jesus still had to die! Not all of our requests are given. We do go through very difficult things here on this earth, and we do plead with our Father for His strength, wisdom and help as we struggle with difficulties here.
True prayer is from our heart, and sometimes our heart will be heavy with what it perceives and endures. True prayer often is a very real struggle; perhaps because true prayer is often more about changing us, than what is around us. Paul wrote of striving, labouring, and struggling in prayer.
Does God hear when we call out to Him and ask Him to intervene? YES, of course He does, and often He responds in ways we do not expect! And, amazingly, He wants to include us in that process which is what true prayer is all about. But where are those who will take up what is on His heart, see Him intervene, and won’t take the credit for the results themselves? Such people seem to be rare, and perhaps are (out of necessity) hidden from view….
We are not under the old contract (covenant) where people had to go to spiritual leaders and ask them to pray to God on their behalf. Instead of asking many people to pray about what concerns us, we ask only One – each of us pray directly to our Father through one Man, one Deliverer, one Priest/Leader, one Mediator, one Giver, one Intercessor: Christ (1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 7:25, 8:1,2; Rom. 11:26).
Living in Christ we know His voice and we rest in Him, we trust Him and know that He loves to govern and direct our hearts as we listen to Him. This means living in a Place of great freedom and trust – in Him – being a living prayer, in constant communion with our Father, and being a true “beth-tefillah” – house of prayer!
All glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. (Ephesians 3:20 NLT)