Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My friend Serge Shoemaker asked me to write an article of "The Purpose of Prayer," for a publication they send out to their community in Dyersburg, TN.   (And he was gracious enough to let me turn it in a week later than we planned, since i was finishing up my paper for school last week!)  It helped me reflect on some things and clarify them in my own mind, so for this week's blog post, i thought i would share the article, and hope it's encouraging to our prayer lives...

The Transformative Power of Prayer

            God wants His people to be people of prayer.  Christians are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).  We should “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).  Jesus taught His disciples how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), taught them to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8), and even showed in His own life an example of constant prayer (Luke 5:16).  God wants prayer to be a significant part of our lives!
But we sometimes ask a deeper question: WHY does God want us to pray?
Doesn’t God already know what I need and what the best plan is?  Yes He does, and yes He does.  The God who created all things knows all things, and “even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it all” (Psalm 139:4).  Even Jesus admitted, when talking about prayer, that “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8).  Yet Jesus did not say this as a discouragement to prayer, but rather as an encouragement to pray with the right motives and goals (to be pleasing to God, not to be heard by men).  So, if God already knows what we need, and yet God still wants us to pray, WHY does He want us to pray?   

Well, God must know that there are deeper blessings in prayer besides simply telling God what we need.  Prayer is not simply uploading a wish list to God.  Neither is it for God’s benefit – He will not be made more perfect by our prayers.  Communicating with God brings blessings for us, not only in answers to prayer, but blessings that come through the act of prayer itself!  I’ve always loved Exodus 34:29, where Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai and receiving the tablets from God: “It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai…, that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him.”   Moses had spent time with God on Mount Sinai, and as a result Moses was different when he came down the mountain.  Moses didn’t even realize his face was shining with the glory of God – but everyone else noticed.  There is a transformative element to prayer – spending time with God leaves us different.  Let’s explore some of the ways that prayer should transform us:
First, prayer transforms us because it builds relationship with God.  My wife and I are closer now than we were the first day we met.  How did we go from a “get-to-know-you” relationship to an “I-know-what-you’re-thinking” relationship?  It happened over years and years of communicating and sharing our lives with each other.  We’ve spent hours and hours talking together.  We’ve shared hopes and dreams and encouraged each other to pursue them.  We’ve watched each other fail and strengthened each other through it.   We’ve been there for each other, and now there is a closeness that can only be built through walking a long road together.
Sadly, many relationships with God never move past the “get-to-know-you” phase.  I wonder: if you somehow met God face to face today in a crowd, would it be awkward for you, since you really don’t talk together much?  Like any other relationship, our relationship with God is made deeper through time with each other.  As we share our hopes, dreams, failures, and lives with God, we feel in God the closeness of a friend who has been there every step of the way.  He has listened when no one else cared.  He has known when no one else knew.  There is a closeness that can only come through walking a long road together, and prayer is an important part of that walk.  God presents Himself to us as a Father who wants to be close to His children, and that closeness is a blessing that is built through prayer.
            Second, prayer brings a blessing because it builds faith in God.  Not only does prayer deepen my relationship with God through time and communication, but it builds my faith and trust in God also.  It makes our faith more alive because “faith is perfected” when it acts on the things God wants us to do (James 2:22).  How is our faith made more perfect (more complete) in prayer?
            Our faith is built in realizing we are truly talking to God.  When praying, it often sinks in to us that we believe in the reality of God, and that we are talking to the Creator of the universe!  We realize that we are – in a sense – on holy ground, and our spirits are strengthened. And in a 100-mile-per-hour world, what better evidence for our faith in God than someone who stops everything he’s doing and takes time to go before God?  Making that commitment to take a temporary halt in our overcrowded schedules for prayer builds our faith in who is truly in charge of the results we spend so much time chasing. 
            And yes, our faith is also built whenever we see God answer our prayers.  Think about the power of this truth: God promises that He will move the world in response to the prayers of His children!  “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).  And He has moved the world for His people many times before: changing His plan for the Israelites in response to Moses’ prayer (Exodus 32:10-14), changing his plan for Hezekiah’s life in response to Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Kings 20:1-7), stopping and resuming the rain in response to Elijah’s prayer (James 5:17).  When we see God move the world in a way we have prayed for, we are receiving a “wink” from God, and our faith is built stronger as we are reminded that God is real and He truly works in His world.  Returning to God in prayer with a “thank-you” for an answered prayer is a powerful, faith-building moment.
            Third, prayer brings a blessing because it builds perspective on life.  I love to read through the Psalms and see the prayers that are recorded there.  Often in those prayers, we are privileged to watch the perspective change from fear to faith, and it occurs while talking to God.  For example, in Psalm 13, David begins by asking “How long, O Lord?  Will You forget me forever?”  He is hurting, and he wonders if God has forgotten him.  He shares this with God, and by simply sharing it, his perspective begins to shift.  By the end of the psalm of prayer, he is expressing his trust and rejoicing in God (verse 5) and is reminded that God has “dealt bountifully” with him (verse 6).  What changed?  Simply praying to God helped re-orient David’s perspective on life and God.  We see this over and over in the psalms.
            We need those times of re-orienting, and if we pray as we should, we will see it happen in our own prayer life.  When we are angry, hurting, doubting, or wondering, let us have the courage and faith to share it with God.  Oftentimes by the end of our prayer, simply bringing the emotion into the presence of God brings a new perspective of trust and brings reminders of what is most important. 
            Philippians 4:6 shows us this perspective shift also.  Paul says to “be anxious for nothing.”  How does he say to combat the anxious worry of life?  Prayer.  “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  In prayer, we take our struggles, worries, and fears, and we hand them over to God, the One who can do something about them.  We leave God’s presence without the baggage of trying to do everything ourselves, with a renewed perspective of who is leading the way and who isn’t. 
Prayer is so much deeper than simply telling God things He already knows!  It is an essential part of a vibrant Christian life, and too often we rob ourselves of its blessings by neglect.  Don’t let the busyness of life keep you from being transformed through prayer!  Like Moses, simply spending time with God will leave us different.  Often without us even knowing it, our time with God will cause us to shine with His glory, transformed by being in His presence.  Let us re-commit ourselves to prayer, and watch as God shapes our lives through it. 

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