Recently I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and I just started E.M. Bounds Essentials of Prayer. Prayer is an interesting topic on which many great and worthy volumes have been written, each with it’s own approach, conception, and fundamental understanding of the importance of prayer. There are many who believe that prayer exists solely to guide the mind and heart of the believer to God, and that it has no fundamentally real effect on the world outside of the believer. There are others, as I have written about before, who believe that prayer is akin to a magical spell which the believer can use to force God to accede to his wishes. Some believe that prayer is a simple thing, that it is easily pursued and it’s goals are easily obtained. Others argue that prayer requires the absolute and total concentration and devotion of the believer, that a half-hearted or half-minded prayer is utterly worthless, possibly even that God does not hear these prayers in the first place. I think that prayer is all of these things and more.
Prayer is, at its very core, our communication with God. There are times in which our prayers are uttered in confusion. They are half-hearted, half-said, half-meant because we ourselves do not truly know or understand for what we pray. We are easily distracted and often utterly without conviction. We lose ourselves on a daily basis, and must seek God for any hope of finding ourselves again. In these times, we are told by scripture, the Holy Spirit translates our prayers for us. No prayer passes by God unnoticed. No utterance, no matter how confused or insincere, is lost to the rolling tides of time. God knows all, sees all, hears all, and so all prayer is meaningful in that it is communication with God, but this does not mean that God responds in the affirmative to all prayer.
However, any attempt to parse out the prayers that God answers and those that he doesn’t is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who are we, simple and foolish men, to lay out rules upon God. Make no mistake, this is often what we do. We search the scriptures for verses that support our ideas and desires, and then we make those into unbendable sanctions upon the divine. We claim verses from John 15 or Christ’s promises to Peter and make them into manifest laws that, when we pray in a certain way, God must give us what we want. Similarly, we take verses from Paul’s epistles or from James and transform them into unalterable standards that all men must meet for their prayers to reach God’s ears.
I have found that these issues of practical theology are best governed by one simple rule, place not upon God, but upon man’s desire to define things: God is God. He can do whatever he wants.
There is much wisdom concerning prayer in scripture, and many promises concerning the effectual nature of prayer. However, the one thing that we can see both from scripture and from experience is that God does as he desires. Consider the failure of Paul’s prayers to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, or the failure of the disciples in casting evil spirits out of a young boy. Even at our best, the understanding of man is utterly and thoroughly limited, and any attempt to understand the power of prayer must begin with an inward conviction that we are not in charge. We do not make the rules, we do not define the standards, we do not tell God how things work or what he is allowed to do.
Instead, we must come to prayer with a humble spirit and a contrite heart, fully aware of our own depravity, and of the eternal grace that God has laid upon us to cover our many sins. We must begin by understanding that prayer, at its core, is communication with God. It is our conversation with a loving, gracious, jealous, wrathful, just (and so much more) father who has the will, the right, and the power to do whatever he desires with and in us, and who loves each of us more than can be understood. Any discussion of prayer must begin with the inward understanding that our first purpose is to glorify him, and the humility to make that purpose our overriding goal. Whatever other intention our prayers might have, this is the core, and when we forget that, then we lose sight of the foundation upon which our lives of prayer are built.