I am a pray-er. Like everyone else I need to do it more. Sometimes, though, prayer can feel like a waste of time.
What follows are some thoughts, concerns, frustrations, and doubts I’ve heard over the years regarding prayer. I find these to be important questions worth asking, worth wrestling with, and worth discussing.
So why pray?
Sometimes it feels like we say some words into the air and wait for something to happen. Or not happen. There’s not a formula or an incantation to summon God’s attention. No signal he’s listening. No light or WiFi bars showing a connection has taken place. For all we know our prayer fades somewhere between here and some layer of the stratosphere. And we only know he answers it because something happens. Or doesn’t happen. If something (or nothing) happens after we prayed for the opposite, we say “Well, it was God’s will.” And no matter what, God’s will is done. Not ours.
God gets his way whether we pray or not.
So why are we praying, exactly?
And he knows what we want before we ask. So why ask?
And he knows what’s best, even when we think we’ve got it figured out. So, not to be redundant here, but what is the point asking?
And, I’ve always been taught that sometimes God answers our prayers, and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he says “not now.” So when a prayer goes up it either:
A) Gets answered because it was God’s will anyway
B) Doesn’t get answered because it wasn’t God’s will, or
C) Gets put in the Inbox for later, at which point God’s will will occur.
One can see why prayer might feel like a complete waste of time.
I think this is why a lot of people give up on prayer – it sounds like a complete waste of time. And, if we’re honest about how we pray, there’s probably some truth to that.
Prayer is not just a time to unload on God. Prayer is not just a time to give God our to-do list. Prayer is not just about asking God to bless our project or our food or our day. In short, prayer is not just about us. At all. Yet a lot of the time we make it that way. As someone pointed out in a Bible class last week, we sometimes decide if prayers are “answered” or not answered based on whether we like the outcome. And in that case, prayer has become about me and what I want, not about God and his purposes.
So in my experience one reason people give up on prayer is because they rarely get their way. Prayers go up for a new job and a job never comes. Prayers go up for healing and it doesn’t happen. Prayers go up for restored relationships and the chasm remains. When prayer becomes about us – about getting our way – it becomes a huge waste of time in a hurry.
Please don’t hear me say praying for any of these things is bad or wrong. As our Father, I believe God wants to be needed. I believe God wants to hear from us. I believe God smiles when we run to him with a request.
An example: our house in Houston has been on the market for over a month now. We have been joined by some wonderfully Godly people in praying for it to sell. I can’t speak for everyone praying, but when we pray about our house we say, “God, we trust you.” This dampens our stress and relieves our concern. It puts me behind God, and God before me.
In my opinion, prayer is a daily reminder that God is all we need.
Look at the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
I don’t think this is a prayer to be scrutinized, parsed, and squeezed for every possible hidden meaning. I think the spirit of the prayer is what’s important. And in this prayer I see three things:
1. Take action.
“For we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” In this prayer we ask God to do the things we cannot do for ourselves, but we also commit to doing our part. Don’t ask for forgiveness unless you are a forgiving person.
Don’t ask God to help the homeless if you drive past them when they’re standing on the corner.
Don’t ask God to win the game for you if you’re just going to stand on the sidelines.
In college several of us played paintball behind an off-campus dorm. None of us had money for actual guns, so we bought cheap slingshots and huge boxes of paintballs. None of us wore masks or protective eyewear of any kind. Our slingshots weren’t regulated for speed or velocity, and we played in some thick brush with barbwire fencing splitting the middle. Yet each time we played we would gather up and pray for God to keep us safe.
Don’t pray for safety if you’re going to be a reckless moron.
We all have a part to play.
2. Trust God for today
But what about the daily bread? Aren’t I capable of feeding myself?
Are you? Couldn’t God cut off our food supply if he wanted? Couldn’t God hit the brakes on the rotation of the earth or snuff out the sun or dry up the rain? Couldn’t God send disease or famine or floods or fires? We are a very advanced society and we have ways of producing food even if all the crops fail (but not for long – who knew corn was so important?). But what Jesus teaches us to do is rely on God for today. Trust his provision for now. Don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t fret over the future, trust him now. This minute. And then the next, and the next, and the next…
As the poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote:
“And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.”
3. God is in control. He is all I need.
Calling God’s name “hallowed” and inviting his kingdom is serious business. It gives him all authority and all control. It means, as Jesus so bluntly stated, dying to ourselves and participating in the kingdom on earth. So when we pray we acknowledge God’s authority and control, and we recognize he is all we need.
If you’re a person who desires to pray more yet grows frustrated from a lack of clear response, let me suggest a different approach. A good way to begin a prayer life is to spend some time every day reminding yourself of this fact.
God is in control.
He is all I need.
It might happen tucked away in a corner with your head bowed and your eyes closed. It might happen in your car on the way to work. It might happen at the dinner table while you talk with your kids. It might happen at Starbucks or on the lake or at the doctor’s office.
God is in control.
He is all I need.
In the gospel stories of Jesus we read that he frequently went off alone to pray, but only a couple of his prayers are actually recorded. When he raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, he tells God he’s not actually praying to him but is simply talking for the benefit of those standing nearby. He’s going through the charade so “that they may believe that you sent me.”
God is in control.
In Luke 22 Jesus goes to a mountain to pray before he is crucified. He says, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
He is all we need.
All of Jesus’ prayers recorded in the gospels are reminders that Jesus is surrendering completely to the authority and control of God. Jesus lived for the purpose of glorifying God.
God could give you everything you ask for. He could never say no. He could be your personal genie in a bottle. But that would never transform your life the way praying, believing, and living this prayer will. Acknowledging that God is in control and that he is all you need will humble your circumstances and bring about a peace no amount of “answered prayer” can deliver. Perhaps if you’re waiting on God to come through on your requests, he might be waiting on you to trust him. Completely.
I can’t imagine giving my boys everything they ask for. I can’t imagine what kind of men they would turn out to be: selfish, spoiled, believing the world revolves around them. Imagine if God gave us everything we wanted. What a terrible life.
If you’ve always wished you had a deeper, richer prayer life, find some ways to remind yourself that God is in control and he is all you need. You will never feel like you’re wasting another second in prayer.