Monday, 02 July 2012
Prayer is something that I've been thinking, and probably should have been writing, a lot about lately. I'm starting to think that I've grown up with an incorrect concept of what prayer is and what it does. I've also started to realize I've had an incorrect concept of most of Christianity all around, hence the reason for these recent postings. Prayer is a heavy concept wrapped in a package so simple that it can seem like there must be something more. Prayer is simply carrying on a conversation with God.
My understanding of prayer was a lot like how I've heard other people describe it, or how I've seen them try to use it. It was talking to God, but with the intent of getting what you want out of the transaction. It was usually done in a "Dear Lord-- Thank You for -- Please give me -- Amen" format, and there was often a more-than-subtle implication that if we say it just right, with exactly the right words and precisely the right state of heart, we'll get the thing we're asking for, whether that might be a new bike or a cure for someone's terminal cancer. But prayer is not witchcraft; there isn't a spell we can concoct that will make God bend to our will.
In a lot of ways, I also didn't understand the power of prayer or see the necessity for it. If I pray for something, even something good and noble, and nothing happens, than the excuse I got was that I must not have done it right, or I must have sin in my life that is preventing God from hearing my requests, or it just must not have been God's will. After a few ineffectual prayers and more than a few attempts at troubleshooting the problem (Maybe I should call Him 'Father'... maybe I should give up sugary snacks... maybe I need to fast...), it can start to seem like prayer just doesn't work. People talk about the power of prayer, and they expound amazing events that they saw "with their very own eyes!" that 'prove' that prayer works, but I wasn't seeing it. I've seen enough to know that God is real and that God is powerful, but I never saw prayer do much more than what seemed coincidental or easily explained in other ways. What I did see was a lot of other people who were disillusioned with 'the power of prayer' and, alongside it, with the God they had been praying to. So I was left wondering why prayer didn't seem to work for me, and if it ever really worked for anyone else.
I was also left wondering why anyone needed prayer. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and He has a plan that IS going to happen despite stupid, little me and the dumb things I do. (Remember Jonah?) So why would God need prayer to make things happen? He knows the things I need in life whether I tell Him about them or not. If I don't ask God for help, is He going to say, "Oh, well, I never knew you needed that; you didn't say anything." And what about the little boy who's sick in bed, for whom the church is gathering for two hours every day to pray. If they didn't pray that often and that hard, or if four people show up today instead of five, is God going to let that little boy die? If no one prays for this little boy, is God going to kill him? God's will is either for this little boy to die or not die; does the responsibility of deciding his fate really fall to me? In these situations, I kept finding myself praying, "God, just do whatever You want." Which is what He was going to do anyway, right? I would look around and watch these other people in fervent prayer so deep they were sweating, and I would wonder, morbidly, if anything they were doing really had any effect. If I don't pray, will it nullify what they're doing? What if I pray for the opposite thing? What if I pray to God to make this kid kick off? If there are fifty people praying for something, and I pray for the opposite thing, is my prayer less powerful than theirs? Would God say, "I'm sorry, we needed fifty-one people to fill the prayer bucket, and you just didn't quite make it. Sorry, Timmy!" ZAP!
But this is what I thought prayer was. This is what some people tried to tell me prayer was, and I just couldn't understand.
I could understand that God, who I knew to be loving and caring and involved in my life, would want me to talk to Him and spend time with Him. I could understand why He would want to hear me tell Him the things I'm struggling with right now, even though He already knows what they are. And I can especially understand why He would want me to get to a place where I can be quiet and alone and focused on Him, ready to hear what He has to say.
But I couldn't understand what this prayer stuff was that people kept trying to convince me about. I couldn't understand why some prayer-spell should make all-powerful God suddenly turn zombie-genie and obey my every whim. And I couldn't understand why I would want that. After all, His plan is way better than anything I could come up with, so why would I want to mess with that? If anything, prayer seems harmful; I don't want to pray for something, and get it, that is a less-good alternative to what God had in store for me.
But that's not what prayer is. Prayer is communication with God; it can be vocal or thought-out or even wordless. Some of the most heart-felt prayers have no words in them. There isn't a standard or pattern to prayer anymore than there is a standard to talking to your friends. God is your friend, and you can talk to Him the same way you would talk to anybody else; I do that all the time. Prayer is a way of reminding us that God really is right there, knee-deep in the same muck we're trudging through. Prayer is a way of focusing us on Him and readying us to listen, a way of allowing ourselves to bend to His will. Prayer is a way of consciously including God in our lives. He's there already, and prayer is a way to acknowledge Him. Prayer is communicating with our God, talking and laughing and enjoying His presence, being together with Him because we love Him and want to spend time with Him. It's not controlling Him, it's gathering together with Him. Prayer is most powerful in its effect in us to bring inward change, not outward. That doesn't mean that prayer doesn't have outward effects, but right now, I'm focusing on the inward. This isn't the only thing prayer is, but it's enough for one day, don't you think?
What is prayer to you? How do you pray?