This month, our church is planning to hold a day of prayer. We will begin it on Saturday, the 25th at 9:15am and continue to the same time on Sunday, the 26th. If it goes as we hope, there will be people praying, whether at home or at our church facilities during the full twenty-four hour period. Also, there will be a number of special prayer activities, such as a prayer walk, a "concert of prayer" (guided prayer meeting), prayer in song and prayer in art. What is all this for? It is to both to encourage the practice of prayer and also to help bring about a spiritual awakening among us through prayer.
What is prayer? In its widest meaning it encompasses all conscious interaction with God and thus becomes almost synonymous with worship. Confession of sin, meditation on God's word, contemplation of God's being, waiting upon the moving of God's Spirit, praising and thanking God - all can thus be included in the category of prayer. However, I said "almost" because worship adds the vital, extra element of obedience. No interaction with God can truly be denominated worship that doesn't include submission to the will of God. Of course, we call "worship" what we do when we gather on First-day morning but actually it is a "meeting for the purpose of worship." Whether worship actually happens is up to us! Many times it is prayer that serves as the catalyst to bring us into a state of submission to God, a state in which we are truly worshiping Him. We start praying in a selfish state of mind and then, by interacting with God in prayer, our selfishness is washed away in the wonderful flow of God's love into our hearts.
Though it is helpful to see prayer as any form of conscious interaction with God, it is also helpful to see it in its more narrow meaning of asking God for something. In fact, that is what the Greek and Hebrew words for prayer in the Scriptures primarily mean: to ask or desire something from another. So if we define prayer in its most specific sense, as asking God for something we find that many people have problems with it. Adoring, praising, contemplating and listening to God are, surprisingly, less controversial or problematical for people than petition, supplication and intercession. Why is this?
People naturally wonder why we should ask God for anything if He is all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful and loves us as much as the Bible says - to the extent of the incarnation and the cross. Yes, we may have an idea of what we want, but since we are finite and God is infinite, shouldn't we just trust in God's wisdom and take whatever He sends or allows to come our way? And aren't our prayers likely to be tinged with, if not wholly motivated by, selfishness? Why, then, would God honor our imperfect petitions? All these are very good questions. But the stubborn fact remains that God commands us to pray and He gives us amazingly broad promises to answer our prayers.
From the Gospel of Matthew alone, we see that Jesus told His disciples to "pray for those who persecute you…" (5:44), "pray to your Father who is in secret…" (6:6), "Pray, then, in this way…" (6:9), "ask, and it will be given you..." (7:7), "pray that your flight will not be in winter…" (24:20 - when Jerusalem is about to be destroyed), and to "Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation…" (26:41). He also promised that "everyone who asks receives…" (7:8) and that if "two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven." (18:19) Were we to broaden our search to the remaining Gospels and then to the whole Bible we would greatly multiply such instances where we are commanded to ask God for things and such promises that He will provide what we ask.
An unwillingness to ask God for anything is really an instance of what the Bible calls being "excessively righteous" and "overly wise", a condition which can result in our ruin (Ecclesiastes 7:16). The Bible makes it quite clear that God does provide many good things we enjoy whether or not we pray. In fact, Jesus says that God "causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and theunrighteous." (Matthew 5:45) This is all irrespective of whether we pray or not and even of whether we are righteous or not! But the Bible also just as clearly says that there are some things, many things, important things, vital things that God will not do for us or provide us unless we ask. "You have not because you ask not…" (James 4:2) Jesus said to the Samaritan Woman, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water." (John 4:10) She does ask for it though it is not until she really understands what this "living water" is that she receives it. Likewise, many people start by asking for one thing and then, as they continue to pray, God opens their eyes to see what they really need and then He gives that. Paul gives a good example of this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
But why does God make many of His blessings contingent upon our asking Him for them? Above all things, God wants us to relate to Him personally. He is not the Deist's god who supposedly created us, gave us laws to keep and then left us to work things out on our own. The true God, the God revealed in the Bible, is a glorious trinity of Divine Persons who eternally enjoy each other's company. The joy of God is in a life of loving and being loved. This joy God wished to extend to us by creating us in His image and likeness. We too are personal beings who derive our greatest enjoyment from relating to other persons and especially to God. Giving and receiving are part and parcel to relationships. Of course God knows what we need before we ask it and of course He better knows what we need than we do but asking and receiving from God serves to bind us more closely to Him. If God had just made it so we received everything we needed apart from prayer, we would not relate to God in a personal way. Asking and receiving makes us realize that He relates to us as His children.
And just as children may ask for things that aren't good for them, so we may ask our heavenly Father for things that would be bad for us or others. Nevertheless, God is deeply grieved when, for fear of asking for the wrong thing, we never ask at all or make our petition so broad and so qualified that it hardly amounts to anything more than "Thy will be done." Like a loving parent, God can tell us "No" and that is alright! Also, as we spiritually mature, we are able to sense more clearly what God wants to give us and ask for that. So go ahead and pray! Pray without fear for you are talking to your heavenly Father and not some impersonal force of the universe or absentee parent.