Prayer is such a natural thing, but that doesn’t mean it is not without its difficulties. My practice of prayer has generally been in the realm of what Richard Foster refers to as “simple prayer.” I did not spend much time trying to find just the right words, I would often simply ask God for things such as help to be faithful, or simply thanking God for many blessings in my life. Since I have begun serving as a pastor, my experience with prayer has changed dramatically. For one thing, I pray for someone out loud nearly every day, whether over the phone or in person. For another, there is great expectation to do more “public” prayers; for instance during worship, city council meetings, convocations, and award banquets. I have since felt a greater burden to find the “right” words and this has actually pushed me further into my Quaker roots of silent prayer, perhaps as a sort of retreat. It has been liberating to just let the concept of words go in my personal prayer with God, simply because I am asked to pray vocally so much more often than before. It is wonderful in prayer to simply seek out God’s presence.
Biblically, prayer takes many forms and has a richness of imagery to draw from: anything from the psalmists’ call to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), to laborious intercession (Deut. 9), to Jacob “wrestling” with God (Gen. 32:22-31), to Jesus’ priestly prayer (John 17) and the Lord’s prayer (Mt. 6:9-13). I would think any faithful and reflective reading of Scripture would call us to examine our prayers in light of the prayers already found in the biblical witness, and that somehow the boldness of these prayers should somehow rub off on us. As much as we struggle with various paradoxes in prayer such as the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom as it relates to prayer, or suffering, or simply our own limited understanding of the divine plan at work around us, it would seem that the model presented to us in the prayers of the Bible does not seem to share our western philosophical struggles with how prayer “works”, and that should give us a great deal of relief in my opinion. It would seem that children pray without feeling like they have to know everything about it before they can get started! Why do some of us struggle so much?
For me, I see a great model for the paradox of divine sovereignty/human freedom in my experience with my young children in my roles as parent. The old cliché of God having three answers to prayer: “yes, no, or I have something better in mind” takes on new meanings and fullness. For instance my daughters often have wonderful ideas that they are not quite ready for; or at times there passion, excitement, exuberance—or sheer nagging—can push me into new and wonderful directions as my own will, and there’s, tease out a slightly different present. Despite God being all knowing and “the parent” in our relationship, this far from means my point of view/plans/prayer requests fall on deaf ears, or aren’t worth the effort, simply because God already knows what I will pray for even before I ask. Anyone who thinks this can borrow my children for a day and see how different that day becomes! You can probably guess what you will be asked in advance, maybe even see it coming a mile away. The difference is whether it looks like snuggling and watching some show about pink unicorns or whatever, the relationship shapes the adventure a lot more than the reverse.
Like a parent, God limits Himself for the sake of our growth; to help us make good decisions and learn from our mistakes when we stumble and fall. God knowing the future or outcome of our prayers, in my understanding, does not necessitate that prayer does not matter. As the Bible says, the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16). It would be unbiblical then to fall into the trap of believing that prayer does not influence God. Our prayer matters, because God desires it to be so. I will never forget waiting for my child’s first words, longing for that, hoping to hear Da-da and knowing that this alone would be message enough.
As one sees in the biblical record of successful intercessions (Ex. 17:9-12; Num. 11:1-2), I believe God can actually change God’s plans in response to human prayers. Not that prayer manipulates God, but that it can truly be “powerful and effective,” not merely because we have aligned our will with God’s, but because God might actually decide to align God’s will with ours. Granted, God can and often does choose not to answer our prayers as we would like, but I truly believe some things can and will change as a direct response to prayer, i.e. we often do not have because we have not asked the One who is powerful and the Giver of all good things (Jas. 4:2-3).
Catherin Bondi sees prayer as an act of love and I can’t help but heartily agree. While I acknowledge the possibility of loveless prayers of lament or even anger at God, as Foster puts it, our love for God pushes us in the direction of interceding for others we also love. He writes, “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is in our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer.” I believe to love someone would necessarily draw us to prayer for them, and have even experienced—in the case of seeking forgiveness—that through continual prayer for someone I can be drawn to love them. I appreciated Bondi’s assertion that intercessory prayer has a connecting, rather than disconnecting effect toward those God has put in our lives. I have felt deep unforgiveness eventually leave me after praying for those who had wronged me. I like to think that a part of Jesus’ teaching on loving God and loving your neighbor (Mt. 22:39) is that you cannot separate the two; how you love your neighbor reflects how you love God and vice versa. Prayer ultimately leads us closer to both if we are being led into prayer rather than trying too tightly control it and hinder God’s sway in us.