We have a deep need to practice the discipline of “asking.”
“I feel like I’m just talking to the air when I pray.”
“Why does God never answer me when I pray? I wish sometimes I could just hear some kind of a response.”
If you can relate to either of the two phrases above, you are like me. Prayer is one of those mysteries that I’ve always wondered about since becoming a Christian. I’ve done it countless times and have found it valuable and meaningful, but a part of me couldn’t fully grasp why we pray the way we do… until recently.
Maybe you’ve heard people say, “Prayer isn’t just about saying a ‘laundry list’ of your needs, or asking God to do things for us. Prayer is about how we are changed in the process of spending time with God.” I’ve frequently heard that, and it sounded good to me, but I still wondered: “How and why exactly does it change us?”
While in the process of thinking through this blog series on “choices,” a very simple truth came to me. At its most basic nature, a big element of prayer is identifying your needs and desires (whether for yourself, or on behalf of others), and honestly expressing them to God. Sound familiar?
Philippians 4:6-7 says:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The Genius Design of Prayer
- Prayer would compel us to do the reflection necessary for us to know who we are, and to grow and change in the way He desires for us.
- Prayer would compel us to take the transformational step of vocalizing our needs and desires. Instead of keeping thoughts to ourselves, prayer requires us to take the proactive step of sharing vulnerably with God and with other people.
- Prayer would humble us, by putting us in a position of expressing need, and having to wait for a response. God knew that we cannot grow in the ways He desires for us, if we never come to a place of genuine need and vulnerability. He knew that having to wait for an answer frustrates us, mostly because we hate not being in control, and facing our fears of the unknown. However, that is how we learn to trust in Him. Check out this clip from the movie “Bruce Almighty,” where Grace (played by Jennifer Aniston) comes to a place of complete need and vulnerability. This is what touches God’s heart:
- Prayer would compel us to take ownership of our needs and desires. God knew that if prayer was a two-way dialogue, we’d find some excuse to not take responsibility, but say, “God told me to do it” or “God spoke, and I had no choice but to obey.” We’d find every conceivable way to twist and manipulate the message of God… after all, isn’t that what people do already, even without proof that God spoke audibly to them?
Who would’ve thought something as simple as prayer could be this challenging, and this “involved?” Still, if you think carefully about all four of these points the next time you pray, I believe you will find them to be effective and rewarding, in allowing the practice of prayer to transform you.
Four Practical Ideas For Transformative Prayer
Here are some practical ideas that I’ve found helpful:
- Take 15 minutes to reflect on what you tend to pray for, and about. Write it down. I’ve found that reflecting on what kinds of things I ask for in prayer, reveals what is important to me. And as I’ve become more aware of that, by simply thinking about what I am asking for and why, the kinds of things I’ve asked for has changed. I’ve grown as a person who cares about different things, and thus prays for different things, as I learn and mature.
- Don’t just pray by yourself, but arrange at least 1-2 times a week when you can pray with a friend or your spouse. It can honestly be as short as 10 minutes, but it makes a difference to have to vocalize your prayers out loud. I encourage you to actually make those prayers personal and as vulnerable as you dare… don’t just pray for other people, but express your needs and desires to your prayer partner. And if you can’t meet up with somebody during a particular week, pray over e-mail. Write out your prayer requests, or even the prayers themselves in paragraph form! It’s better than not doing anything at all, and you’ll also have a written record of your prayer requests.
- When you pray, pray for a couple of things that you normally take for granted. Ask God to provide them. For instance, a good friend of mine sometimes prays that God would provide him three meals during his day. That’s something he can easily arrange for himself, but praying for it reminds him to stay humble, knowing that God could take away everything we have in a moment’s notice. It changes his perspective and orientation in prayer, to one of dependence. Plus, God delights in providing for our needs, so it honors God that we acknowledge that He provides for our every need, even when we forget it’s He who is doing the providing. We are always “in need” — not just when we are desperate or hit “rock bottom” — whether or not we remember that truth.
- Seek to “live out” your prayer requests on a day-to-day basis. Incorporate them into your personal goals for the year, or even your job description if that is possible and appropriate. Don’t wait for God to do something drastic, but look for Him to provide as you take action and live your life with intentionality and purpose. Also, when we check in with your friends or prayer partners, ask each other for updates based upon your last time sharing. This is much easier to do if you keep a written record, like looking at an old e-mail, an online collaborative (i.e. Google) document, or prayer journal. Encourage and hold each other accountable to what you’ve shared.
I hope these ideas, and this perspective on prayer, are helpful in some way to you. Feel free to share any insights and tips you’ve found, as well!
Prayer and Self-Absorption
One last thought about “knowing yourself” and faith. You may gather from reading this post that I believe expressing our needs and desires is integrally related to spiritual growth. But maybe you’re like me, and you’ve grown up seeing people (including myself) acting incredibly self-absorbed, and only praying for themselves, rather than for other people. Or perhaps you see Christians using prayer to only grumble cynical sentiments, rather than express thanksgiving and gratitude to God. So let me set the record straight.
Prayer is not only about yourself. It’s about praying for other people, and things bigger than our lives. Prayer is not just about asking for things, but expressing affection and thanksgiving to God. But we cannot overlook how important prayer is simply between us and God, in how He uses it to change and grow us (the Lord’s Prayer is a good balance of all of these things).
Prayer and Over-Spiritualization
Too often, I’ve seen the tendency of Christian culture to “over-spiritualize” things. It’s frowned upon, or at least incredibly difficult, for some Christians to simply say, “I need this” or “I want that.” Rather, they feel pressured to say, “This is what God wants” or “I want this for God’s kingdom.” Christians can dichotomize our desires from God’s wishes, and say they that they are serving out of “obedience,” although they really don’t want to do what they are doing.
I personally can understand this viewpoint, as frequently God calls us to do things out of our comfort zone. It is dangerous to make our desires the sole guiding force, apart from God’s direction or wisdom. However, I’ve frequently seen Christians go to the other extreme, so that they make decisions based upon where the biggest needs are (obedience) — apart from their unique personalities and desires. Such experiences, while they can be helpful and stretching in the short-term, usually do not result in long-term sustenance or motivation. That usually comes about when there is clear choice and ownership, after discerning the intersection of our personal honest desires and God’s deep desires for us.
There’s intentionality and purpose to how God uniquely created each of us, and being honest about our passions and needs is part of honoring God’s handiwork and design, that has been built into the fabric of our lives and being. God is weaving together an incredible storyline in us, and understanding ourselves is a foundational step to discern how we can best serve Him, other people, and the world.
Jesus Expressed Needs and Desires
Keep this in mind, too — Jesus Himself knew His own needs and desires, and didn’t hesitate to make them clear to His Heavenly Father, or to His friends. Just last week, our work team reflected on Matthew 26:36-56 in preparation for Good Friday and Easter:
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
First of all, notice how Jesus distinguished between His will and the Father’s will. Ultimately, He submitted to the Father’s will, but He didn’t deny or downplay the fact that He himself had a will! Jesus didn’t just say to the Father,”You and your desires are the same as mine.” No, He was in agony at the thought of what it would mean to obey His Father’s will. Even in one of the most intimate relationships, Jesus was able to differentiate His own needs and desires from the Father and His will — while staying fully connected and obedient to His Father.
Second, the passage goes on to describe how Jesus asked His disciples to stay watch two more times, and He also prayed to God the Father two more times. Our team marveled at how Jesus knew His prayer requests might not be granted, yet He still expressed an honest desire multiple times. Although He knew the disciples might not stay awake, and that He might be betrayed, Jesus persisted in telling them what He desired. He kept asking.
“Asking” opens you up to the possibility of being hurt, and Jesus made Himself vulnerable by expressing his needs and desires over and over again. That was how He chose to relate and love in His relationships. If the God of the universe is comfortable expressing His honest needs and desires, and asking for them… how much more do we need to learn to do those things?
How Do You Pray?
So how do you pray? Are you in touch with your own needs and desires when you pray?
Are you being fully honest with yourself, with other people, and with God?
Prayer matters, but not just praying in any random way. How we pray makes the biggest difference, in how we can grow, be transformed, and draw closer to the heart of God in the process. So the next time you pray and feel like you’re talking to the air, know that God designed prayer to be the way it is for our own good, as frustrating as the silence may be. It was no accident.
We have a deep need to practice the discipline of “asking.” But God is with you, waiting intently for you to share vulnerably from a place of honest need, and joyfully anticipating how He will provide for your every need, and more. He wants you to ask, so that He can provide, and so that you can receive fully.
In closing, here’s one more clip from “Bruce Almighty,” where “God” is asking Bruce to pray. It’s a great illustration of authentic prayer and some of the principles listed above. Enjoy!