Prayer is a difficult topic because while some call it an art form, others call it a discipline. In all practicality prayer is often seen as burdensome and difficult. Why the tension? Why the burden? If something provides no enjoyment, then I believe we should question what we are doing. If prayer is not enjoyable we must change. But the change is not to stop praying, but to pray in the right way and for the right reasons.
A fascinating thing that struck me is the fact that all major religions have prayer as a centerpiece, the way of communicating with their god(s). What is sought after is help, as if he were the eternal emergency hot-line. For example, some irony, imagine Troy goes to war against Athens. Both cities send men to the priests to pray to the gods and ask for direction. Both get an affirmative, “Go to war, you shall succeed”. It becomes the battle of the gods, not taking into consideration that it is to the same gods they are praying. I am sure in the Civil War there were many Christians on both sides that thought God would bless their fervor. Yet in war, as in life, one looses one wins, one gets what he wants the other doesn’t, one is blessed while the other cursed, and so on.
It becomes obvious that most people, when they pray, forget the purpose all-together. Christ petitioned God in the Garden to listen to him, yet still he prayed “Your will be done.” And he acted upon it. That is where we fall short. We ask God to do what we want, and we even say “Your will be done”, but we are not willing to accept his answer. Christians are blessed to be able to talk directly to God, through our mediator, Jesus Christ. But God is not a juke-box, or a lottery machine. He has a plan and he is working to accomplish it, and it is our duty to find out what it is. Jesus Christ knew God’s plan, he asked for change, yet when the answer was “no”, he obeyed to the point of death. So should we.
The Westminster Larger Catechism states: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of His Spirit, with confession of our sins; and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.” This is an excellent definition, yet may I suggest it is too simple and it misses the main point. The reason we should pray is not simply to “ask and receive”. It is not even to find out God’s plan for us. Those are part of a greater picture. Pagans do this! The Roman Caesars offered sacrifices to ask god to bless them and to find out the future. This form of praying makes God seem like a dispenser of gifts, instead of a loving father. God blesses us and shows us direction in life so that we may glorify him and stand in awe of his mercy. The second part of the Catechism hints at this.
Prayer is the center-piece of practical Christianity. Christ is the complete center, but prayer is the vehicle by which we communicate with our heavenly Father. Why did Christ die? Ultimately, as I Peter 3:18 states, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Man’s relationship with God was broken-off at Eden, when the man sinned; Christ came to restore that bond. He set himself as our advocate between God and us, as our lawyer and redeemer, bringing us into God’s court of judgment and pronouncing us “perfect” because of Christ. Without Christ we would have no way of speaking openly with God, even in the Old Testament we see that the ability to speak to God depended on that person’s faith in a future Messiah: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
God wants to get to know us individually, intimately, and prayer is the path. Christ has opened this path, and always keeps it open! So when we pray, we are speaking to the Almighty God, who wishes to bless us, yes, and to show us his plan for our lives. But he also wishes to commune with us, to be close to us, to bring us to the place where we trust him and love him above all and everyone else. May I suggest working to turn your prayer life around, in which we are all lacking, and giving yourself to private and honest prayer with your heavenly Father on a regular basis? Trust God with all your burdens, and expect him to hear! Lift up your sorrow and your joys; exalt him as it is due, but do not withhold bitterness when it overcomes you.
The examples of prayer in Scripture are those of men crying out to God and withholding nothing from him, being honest and blunt with him. If God is all-knowing, then he already knows all that you are experiencing, why not bring it to God in prayer, in all its color? It is you that need to express it to God, because he has promised: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23-24). But read between the lines: if you don not ask, you will not receive. If you withhold from God your requests and your burdens, then he will not answer. Then you will see God working in your life, unfolding his plan through you, and bringing you ultimately to a close and intimate relationship with himself.