I’m not an expert on prayer. I attended a conference last year that really inspired me to learn more about prayer, and led to me share the results of that learning in a spiritual disciplines class at our church. Confession: since doing all that learning, I’ve done little doing. I’m really starting to feel how desperately I need to be about the work of prayer, and at just the right time (ahem… God moved and) I came across a set of notes that I prepared for that spiritual disciplines class on prayer. They’re pretty good notes with some challenging and inspiring information, but I had completely forgotten about all of it. Apparently I knew this stuff about prayer. I didn’t do it. This information is hitting me fresh, so I’m sharing it with you in a series of five posts. (You can read more about all of that here.) This information and inspiration about prayer is aggregated from several people and sources that I consider to be credible within this topic. This is not my own knowledge or information. Again, I’m not an expert, really just a curator. Check back over the next several days for the rest of my notes on prayer. (See part 1 of this series here.)
What do we (really) believe about prayer?
John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People posits that prayer is most-often associated with desperation (e.g., a “Hail Mary” at the end of a football game).
It is not bad to pray in a time of crisis. One of God’s most amazing attributes is that he is humble enough to accept people when they turn to him in sheer desperation, even when they have been ignoring him for years. Desperation prayers have been the beginning of spiritual life for many people. But by themselves such prayers are not sufficient to sustain spiritual life. Many of us fall into a pattern where the only times we pray are the times when we are prompted by crisis or pain; the rest of the time we rely on our own strength and cleverness. This pattern points to what we really believe regarding prayer. In most ordinary moments we are not convinced that prayer really changes things. Many people believe that their prayers won’t change God’s actions, so they ask themselves what the point is of praying. As Dallas Willard puts it, “The idea that everything would happen exactly as it does regardless of whether we pray or not is a specter that haunts the minds of many who sincerely profess belief in God. It makes prayer psychologically impossible, replacing it with dead ritual at best” (p. 92).
In contrast, in Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes that “All who have walked with God have viewed prayer as the main business of their lives… For those explorers in the frontiers of faith, prayer was no little habit tacked onto the periphery of their lives; it was their lives” (p. 34)
Foster mentions the defeatist, “que sera sera” attitude to which Ortberg (and Willard) refer and contrasts it with a proper view of the power and reach of prayer. He writes, “The Bible pray-ers prayed as if their prayers could and would make an objective difference. The apostle Paul gladly announces that we are ‘co-laborers with God’; that is, we are working with God to determine the outcome of events. It is Stoicism that demands a closed universe not the Bible… [The Bible] speaks of God constantly changing his mind in accord with his unchanging love” (p. 35).
Foster continues to say that when we come to believe that prayer is a way to change things, “[t]his comes as a genuine liberation to many of us, but it also sets tremendous responsibility before us. We are working with God to determine the future! Certain things will happen in history if we pray rightly. We are to change the world by prayer” (p. 35). Ortberg writes: “We may never know the true effects of prayer this side of death. But we do know this: History belongs to the intercessors” (p. 95).
Here’s the thing: What we really believe about prayer is revealed in our prayer lives. [Ouch.] If we really believed that “Without God, [we] can’t, but without [us] He won’t,” how would the world – not just our lives – but the world be different? How would history be different? Or, to a more fruitful set of questions: how can and will the world be different? How can we surrender to and partner with God to change history?”
So, I hope I’ve been pretty clear about the fact that I’m not an expert about prayer. If you doubted that, then check out the line above: “What we really believe about prayer is revealed in our prayer lives.” The “Ouch” that follows that statement was one that I typed in those notes when I wrote them last year. Imagine how much more that stings today when I’m in this season of essentially no private walk with God. Nothing like being preached at by your past self and being convicted.
What about you? If what we really believe about prayer is revealed in your prayer life, what do you really believe about prayer? What do you want to believe about prayer? How can you put into practice your aspirational beliefs about prayer?