As a child, I remember being taught that prayer was simply talking to God.
Just talking to God…
…the Creator of the Universe, who made everything.
…the King over everything.
…the One who knows everything about us, as scary as that sounds.
With all due respect to my teacher, is talking to God really that simple? Think about it, is even starting a meaningful conversation simple? After all, if I want to talk to my boss, I usually have to schedule a meeting. If I am interested in getting freshly sliced turkey for my sandwich after that meeting, I need to take a ticket and wait in line for my number to be called. Even my adult son suggests that if I want a response in under two hours, I should I call him, instead of texting him. After all of this, am I to believe that even getting the attention of the Creator of the Universe is…simple?
And when we have His attention, does it matter what we are asking for? Can we expect God to respond when we toss up that quick prayer in the desperate hope that the kicker makes the game winning field goal?
What if we simply rattle off the prayers we memorized as children?
In the midst of our busy lives, is God grateful that we at least made the effort?
Does it help if we compose our prayers with flowery words, or petition God repeatedly, to show how much we want what we are asking for?
Knowing that “simply talking” with God would be difficult, Jesus addressed some of our struggles with prayer over two millennia ago.
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)
I completely understand that we should not be tossing words into the air hoping some of them stick. Is anything really gained by making our prayers longer than they need to be? I highly doubt that we get credit for the number of words we use.
We are taught that we should be intentional in our conversation with God. But, Jesus also says that God knows what we need before we say anything. So, I have to respectfully wonder, why bother? If God already knows what we need, do our prayers actually change anything? Is prayer simply an attempt to align ourselves with what God is already planning? That seems to make sense. After all, we are talking to the God of Everything and the King of Everywhere. I dare say that God has a pretty good idea which path is best for us.
And if He knows, why are we encouraged to pray, continually? (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Is there more going on here than just getting us on the same page?
What if, our simple, heartfelt prayers could not only change us, but also change God? Can we really hope that God is listening to us the way that a parent might listen to the sincere and earnest pleas of their child?
When my son, the same one I mentioned above, was about five or six years old, and prodigiously persistent, he had his heart set on a popular video game. After innumerable attempts to sway us to stop by the mall on the long drive home, I thought he had succumbed to exhaustion as the backseat fell silent. Then, he started moaning. Not very loudly, but enough so that I could hear him. I took the bait. “You OK, buddy?” I asked. “Sorry, Dad. My head hurts. I know you don’t want me to keep asking about that game. And I am trying really, really hard to stop asking. But, all of this trying is making my head hurt.”
He got the game… and style points for creativity. But can this same creativity convince God to give us what we want?
How should we pray? Why do we pray? Do we pray to change our mind or to change God’s? Despite the apparent simplicity of the task, prayer is often met with numerous questions and varying levels of uncertainty. So, to help provide us with some additional insight and guidance, let’s explore a few examples from the lives of real people as recorded in the Bible.
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Once, there was a man who was stricken with leprosy. His skin was falling off, and he was considered unclean. He couldn’t touch the cheek of his daughter, fish with his son, or hold his wife… ever. Forced to live on the outskirts of town with others who shared his fate, he was relegated to isolation on the fringe of society, waiting for his body to waste away.
One day, Jesus walked by the leper camp. As the physical distance between them closed, the man, with hope, said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” (Matthew 8:2) I would count that as a prayer…a very intentional prayer. And, Jesus “…stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, 'I do choose. Be made clean!' Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” (Matthew 8:3)
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A woman suffered with uncontrolled bleeding for over twelve years. She spent everything she owned consulting one doctor after another, but her condition continued to deteriorate. She was desperate. She had heard about Jesus and His power to heal. On one particular day, she could see the great crowd following him. So, from the fringes of the crowd, she reached out and simply touched the edge of His garment. While she doesn’t say anything to Jesus, I would classify her actions as a prayer. And, despite everyone else in the crowd pushing against Him, Jesus felt her prayer. He stopped and searched for her. When she confessed that she was the one who reached out to Him, Jesus answered, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34)
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Since freeing the Israelites from the most powerful nation on the planet, God had become increasingly frustrated with their lack of faith and endless complaining. While He had been extraordinarily patient with them during their journey through Sinai, it appeared God had reached His limit. He pulled Moses aside and said, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10) Ouch.
Moses was over eighty years old at the time, and the Israelites were not making his life easy. Despite all of Moses’ efforts on behalf of God, the Israelites repeatedly wanted to return to Egypt and relentlessly questioned his leadership. I have to wonder if, just for a moment, God’s proposal didn’t sound so bad to a weary Moses. If he could get a break from the ceaseless conflict…
But no, not Moses. Instead, he passionately pleads for the people he leads. He reminds God of the promises He made to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He asks God if He has considered what the Egyptians might say if He destroys His people in the desert. He begs God to remember why He has saved His people in the first place. Then, we find one of the most powerful and most overlooked statements in the Bible. And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:14)
In that critical moment in history, we are clearly told that Moses changed God’s mind. Some may argue that this whole scenario was an act. God never planned on destroying His people. God just wanted to see if Moses would defend this ungrateful rabble. Some suggest that this entire scene between God and Moses was a cruel leadership exercise. But, if that was really the case, why does God not tell Moses, and us, what He was doing when the exercise was over? Why doesn’t God congratulate Moses for passing the test and give him an engraved plaque to mark the occasion?
Perhaps, we can humbly acknowledge the profound idea that Moses’ prayer changed God’s mind. In fact, the Hebrew word which is translated “changed His mind”, naham, means to repent or regret one’s actions. Rather than attempt to twist the story to better fit our preconceptions about God, why not just take what is written at face value. God was about to severely, and justly, punish His people. In response, Moses pleaded with God. And that sincere prayer changed God’s mind and saved a nation.
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In these three stories, what made these prayers effective? What moved God to act - to heal or to change His plans? In each example, there was no special incantation recited. No promises for a changed life are offered. No deals are made. And in one instance, no words were offered at all.
There is one common thread between them. Each individual had the courage and the faith to anticipate an answer from God. They believed that they were in a real, active relationship with the God of Everything.
We can’t forget that prayer is more than just talking to God, but a two-way relationship with God. We are not mumbling words into the air and hoping someone or something will hear them. We are not sending positive thoughts into an empty universe, knowing that they will not really make a difference in our lives.
Prayer is a meaningful, ongoing conversation, a personal relationship…
…with a God who listens, knows and cares.
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But, given that this is a truth, then why does Jesus say…
“Pray then in this way:” (Matthew 6:9)