Prayer is communication with God in the broadest sense. As the activity of communication with God, it holds a central part in the life of the Christian. He cannot do without it, nor can he have too much of it. We are not told that Jesus taught His disciples how to preach or work miracles. We are told that He taught them to pray (Matthew 6; 9). Elisha is not mentioned in the New Testament even though he worked greater miracles than Elijah. It is Elijah, and particularly his prayers, that the New Testament remembers (James 5; l7).
It takes us right back to the bedrock of our Christianity. God takes the initiative. As we did not choose Him, but He chose us (John l5; l6), so He is more eager to communicate with us than we are with Him.
In life God is always reaching out to His people. We do not have to struggle to find our way into His presence. But we know where we may find Him. God has already provided the way back to Himself. When His Son died in our place on the Cross, He Himself took our separation and alienation, as at that moment Jesus found Himself God-forsaken. There the barrier of our sin was removed. We were granted access into the presence of God. It is because Jesus' death made this possible that we may pray `in the name of' , or `for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord' .
As God has taken the initiative in drawing us back to Himself and making prayer possible, we can relax about prayer. It is letting God do what He wants. It may at times be hard, but it should never be seen as an achievement.
Why, then, do we find it difficult? For the same reason that we can find the whole Christian life difficult: old patterns of selfishness try to reassert themselves. (a) We pray only when we feel like praying, letting our feelings dominate us rather than our minds and our wills. Our minds tell us that prayer is important, but our feelings say that it is more pleasant to watch the television. (b) We allow prayer to be squeezed out of our lives by the pressures of everyday living. The pressing but unimportant squeezes out the important but unpressing. (c) We narrow down our prayer in practice to `asking God for things' and find ourselves presenting God with the same shopping list day after day. (d) We lose our sense of helplessness and think we have a right to have our prayers answered. If they are not, we are disappointed and stop praying. But there are solutions to these problems.
But in trying to answer some of the problems of prayer, we should not ignore its mystery. Prayer is not simple. Nor is it always easy. The Bible speaks of wrestling in prayer (in Colossians 4;l2 Epaphras literally `agonises over you in the prayers'). Jesus told a parable specifically to teach His disciples that they ought always to pray and not lose heart (Luke l8;1). It seems that there is some connection beween the effectiveness of our prayers and the strength of our faith (Matthew 21; 21 & 22). We will always be puzzled by our unanswered prayers (or rather those to which God's answer is "No"); it may be that we are asking for what is in fact harmful for us - wisdom may sometimes refuse what ignorance innocently asks. It may be that unconfessed sin is separating us from God (Psalm 66; 18). It may be that God is challenging our faith. His clocks keep perfect time and He may be wanting each of us to pray more, to pray more earnestly, to persevere, so that His eventual answer will strengthen and reinforce our faith.
We are taught to pray according to our faith (Mark ll; 24). We are not to pray for what we cannot believe will happen. But, as we pray, and God answers, our faith will grow to grasp the `impossible'. For example, instead of asking for the conversion of our neighbour, if we cannot believe that it will happen, we could pray that we might get to know that neighbour better - perhaps invite him into our house, or be invited into his. As God answered that prayer, we might be encouraged to pray that we may get into conversation with him about Christianity. As God answered that prayer, we might believe that he would come to church with us. The answer to that prayer might have created in us the faith to believe that this neighbour will be converted. God's answer to that will finally have increased our faith as well as extended His Kingdom.
`There is no way to learn to pray but by praying. No reasoned philosophy of prayer ever taught a soul to pray. The subject is beset with problems, but there are no problems of prayer to the man who prays. They are all met in the fact of answered prayer and the joy of fellowship with God' [Samuel Chadwick].
It is no good our hoping that prayer will change things, without changing us . In our praying God is at work upon us, just as much as we are at work upon the world.
We can (and must) pray at all times and in all places. It may be a moment's quiet reflection, or a sudden cry of panic (like Peter's Matthew l4; 3O). But, if we do not have a regular pattern of planned prayer in our lives, there is a danger we will soon not be praying at all. We need to find a time of the day when we can be alone, and a place where we can be undisturbed. Jesus rose a great while before day and went out into a lonely place, teaching us that prayer is more important than sleep (Mark 1; 35). What position we use does not matter, but we will need a Bible if we are to hear God as well as speak to Him.
As important as daily regularity in our praying is a balance between different aspect of prayer. We need stillness while we wait quietly to hear God's voice. `Be still, and know that I am God' (Psalm 46; 1O). `For God alone my soul waits in silence' (Psalm 62; 1). It has been said that all the evils of modern life have come upon man because he cannot sit alone quietly in a room. Certainly we often bustle busily into the presence of God and bustle out again without ever pausing to listen to Him or to worship Him. We need confession when we bring our sins before God and seek His forgiveness and the help of His Spirit. We need thanksgiving ; above all for the death of Jesus that makes the whole thing possible and takes away our sin, but also for the thousand things we take for granted every day and for the answers to previous prayer. We need to ask for our needs (again not forgetting the ones we take for granted - `give us this day our daily bread' ), and for the needs of others (the authorities who rule over us, Christian work around the world, the poor and the suffering, our own church and friends) and we need to be specific in all our prayers. "God bless Africa" is non- intelligent prayer. It is not focussed. It is unrelated to a burden of tangible proportions, which must surely be a part of heartfelt prayer. It is not a prayer whose answers can be perceived and thus one which will not readily bring praise and thanksgiving to God. We need praise - spiritual health made audible, as it has been called, when we respond to God for Who He is, rather than merely for what He has done.
There are also forms of public prayer; grace before meals, prayer in church services, and prayer meetings. Jesus Himself gave us guidelines to follow. In Matthew 6, verses 5 and 6, we pray to God, not men (there is such a thing as a horizontal prayer, telling others something we think they should know, and not directed to God at all); verses 7 and 8, we are to stick to simple language.`Guard against all ambition to excel one another in expression. Remember the most spiritual prayer is a groan which cannot be uttered (Romans 8; 26), or a cry of "Abba, Father" (Galatians 4; 6)' [R.M. McCheyne]. There are various people who tend to kill prayer meetings; those who pray too long, too horizontally, too often, those who do not pray at all, and, especially, those who never attend.
Satan seeks in every way he can to keep us from praying. If he cannot squeeze it out of our lives by pressure of time, he will make us forget that prayer begins and ends with humiliation and dependence, that:
`the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words' (Romans 8; 26).
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