Prayer meetings. They're a bit like Marmite - you either love 'em or hate 'em. Let's face it, even for the most zealous pray-er, such gatherings can on occasion be a little... dry. Yet prayer is the lifeblood for Christians. A faith without prayer - without that two-way communication between us and God - is a dying faith. We need regular dialogue with God to keep us focused, on track and firing on all cylinders.
So what is prayer? Do we have to shut our eyes, clamp our hands tightly together and adopt an unnatural (and uncomfortable) posture? What should we pray for? How often should we do it? Why should we assume that prayer makes any difference whatsoever? And how can we deal with the crushing discouragement we experience when our intercessions just don't seem to be answered at all?
'Prayer,' explained John Calvin, 'is an intimate conversation of the pious with God.' The word 'pious' is used not in a negative, supercilious context, but rather as a term of commendation - 'devout' or 'earnest' could equally be substituted. As one of the 16th century church reformers, Calvin contemplated prayer perhaps more deeply than any other theologian of the time, and his thinkings shaped the doctrine of the early Protestant church. Let's use his three key words - intimacy, conversation and piety - as the starting point for our explorations.
Intimacy speaks of a relationship with deep bonds. Most of us will talk to many people during a typical working day, but we will be intimate with rather fewer. We want to share our lives with those whom we are intimate with. It's not a chore - it's what we live and breathe for. It's an exclusive relationship where we can really open up and be ourselves. An honest relationship. A warts-and-all relationship. With intimacy comes trust, mutual respect, responsibility... and love. Intimacy can be destroyed if any of these elements is missing, or if too many barriers are put up. And intimacy also means that we often share difficult, painful things with our partner. Intimacy is not always a walk in the park.
|Praying for an imperfect world
So it is with prayer. The relationship between Jesus and his church is often described in terms of a bride and groom. That is a divinely intimate relationship. Within that relationship, God wants us to pray 'on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests' (Ephesians 6:18).
Not for him a weekly omnibus or selectively-edited highlights package. In fact, a surprising number of the prayers recorded in the Psalms are cries for help, or laments of anguish. Some even veer towards ranting and questioning God's very nature. The pain is tangible. And as for Lamentations, well!
God doesn't want us to dumb things down; he recognises we live in an imperfect world and truly welcomes 'all kinds' of prayer - even when words cannot convey our hurt. When we don't know what to pray, we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit, who 'intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express' (Romans 8:26).
You've probably been in the decidedly awkward situation where a conversation somehow turns into a monologue. All you can do is nod or shake your head, or perhaps look at your watch in a pointed manner. Try as you might, there's no way to escape the verbal onslaught. Or worse, it's you doing all the talking - and you're not sure whether the person you're speaking with is uninterested, uneducated or unconscious! One-sided conversations are rarely productive.
The Bible warns about waffling on too much in prayer: 'when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans' (Matthew 6:7). Just as pauses in conversation are crucial, pauses in prayer are necessary too. God wants to speak to us - not just vice versa. This can take a number of forms: through the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16), a physical voice or whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12), or other demonstrable results (Luke 11:13). We need to give God space, and to be patient. '"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you"' (Jeremiah 29:10-12).
|The beauty and majesty of creation can help us pause for breath
Although we are encouraged to enjoy an intimate relationship with God, we must remember our own position. We are not equals with God, and so must approach our holy, majestic Creator with reverence. Throughout the Bible, we're given a number of different approaches and patterns for prayer.
Recognition of who God is features heavily in the psalms, and the language used is often deeply reverential: 'My King and my God' (Psalm 5), 'Lord most high' (Psalm 7), 'How majestic is your name' (Psalm 8), 'Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?' (Psalm 24). Pausing for breath and a moment's silence can help us adopt a prayerful attitude.
Reflecting our own situation is a key element too. We cannot enter God's holy presence without confessing our wrongdoings. When Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, he used the words 'forgive us for doing wrong as we forgive others' (Matthew 6:12, CEV). Honesty with God is crucial - 'The Lord hates the sacrifice of sinful people. But the prayers of honest people please him' (Proverbs 15:8, NIrV). God cuts through hypocrisy like a hot knife through butter.
Responding to God's providence is another important ingredient of prayer. 'Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever' (1 Chronicles 16:34) is a theme which recurs throughout the Psalms. In the New Testament, Paul counsels the fledgling Thessalonian church to give thanks 'in all circumstances, for this is God's will' (1 Thessalonians 5:18). For Paul, 'all circumstances' was a bittersweet turn of phrase - he was no stranger to giving thanks in times of extreme hardship.
Requesting God to take action or to provide is perhaps the form of prayer which most readily rolls off the tongue. But sometimes we can feel guilty about this, or convince ourselves that God is not interested in our trivial requests. And in any case, God 'knows what you need before you ask him' (Matthew 6:8) - so what's the point in verbalising our request? We may also be put off by previous petitions to God which seem to have gone unanswered.
This is the deep mystery of prayer. Why our requests should make any difference at all had been debated by scholars for centuries. But the fact remains that God does want us to ask him for things. Jesus said: 'Ask and it will be given to you ... if you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!' (Matthew 7:7-11).
Experience tells us, of course, that God doesn't always do things our way. Sick children die, despite the persistent prayers of the faithful. Wars ravage the earth. Evil isn't always quashed in the manner that we would wish it to be. Why, Lord? It's not fair. And it's not acceptable to fob off such questions with a glib 'God works in mysterious ways'. Ezekiel 18:32 assures us 'I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord'. So what's going on? It's a valid question. Could it be that we're praying for the wrong thing?
|'Take off your shoes, this is holy ground'
I'm writing this article during a 24/7 prayer week. If you've never been involved with such an event, lobby for it without hesitation! Prayer requires discipline and 'signing up' for particular hour-long slots during a week is a great accountability tool. But, more than that, 24/7 prayer rooms are oases from the hurly-burly of normal life, and even just being in such a prayer-soaked atmosphere can be uplifting. It also gives time and space for participants to explore new expressions of prayer, that they might otherwise never have even thought about. Liturgy, silence, meditation, music, art, literary and biblical quotes, symbols, standing up, sitting down, kneeling, active prayer, prayer walking... the list is endless.
Using the 'right' words, then, is not as important as the spirit in which we engage with God. 'Pray continually' does not mean that we must be mumbling the Lord's Prayer every minute of the day. Rather, prayer is about spending some quality time with God, as regularly as you can. It's important not to feel inadequate about duration, frequency or eloquence of prayer.
As Benedictine priest Fr John Chapman once wisely said: 'Pray as you can, not as you can't'. So there's no need to wing it... spend time with God, and he will spend time with you. And that will change your life.
The Salvation Army's international web editor