The Truth About Prayer

December 12, 2015

Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit you really don’t understand something you teach about.  We can act like experts, talk like pros, preach like nobody’s business…but when it comes right down to it—there are certain mysteries in life that nobody completely understands.  One of those mysteries is prayer.

I’ve been told there are more books on prayer than any other topic on the ‘belief’ aisle of a bookstore.  I know that because I wrote one, and added to the volumes that should be labeled “What we think about prayer,” not “What we know about prayer.”  In truth, every author that’s ever explained how prayer works knows that their knowledge is shaky at best. Just when we think we’ve got the formula, something happens that undermines our bullet points—and we’re back to where we began in a hushed whisper that utters, “God help me, show me, guide me…I don’t even know how to pray.”

I’m afraid that in our effort to understand prayer we sometimes end up bullying God.  “Give me this…Change that…open the doors to this…close the doors to that…”  It’s not that the intent is bad, after all, Jesus says to “Ask and it shall be given.”  Asking’s not the problem, it’s more in the aftermath of asking that we get muddied and confused.  When we pray just like the author’s told us to and nothing changes; when we lay out our fears and desires and the answers don’t come; when we pray for a certain outcome and the opposite seems to transact before our eyes; then what do we do?

What is this mystery we call prayer?

One of the best books I’ve ever read is called Prayer:  Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster.  He’s an expert on prayer research and can quote saints from every century since creation.  Even he says, “Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love.”  Why does it feel more like gritting our teeth?  Why do we fall back to patterns that scream, “Pray more, pray better, pray harder, pray bolder” while God is saying quit gritting your teeth and fall more in love?

After seeing the blockbuster movie War Room (which I loved…) I went right home and began to scout out my new prayer closet.  I’ve always been known as a warrior in prayer, and to some extent I believe that’s true.  I know that God can count on me to pray boldly when needs arise, and to continue to live out a wild faith and adventure that fears little and forges with blazing grace.  Where I seem to get tripped up is in the day-to-day rhythms of prayer. I know what I preach—“Start in the morning; pray throughout the day; pray with faith and belief; pray with confidence because without belief we cannot please Him.”  I’d give my life for these statements which I know are true. That’s not the problem.  I just don’t know how to live in the rhythm of their power day in and day out.  Why do I start in a closet of prayer, and end with a wandering mind and a list of requests I feel overwhelmed by? Perhaps the answer lies in the opposite of gritting our teeth to try harder in prayer—and is nestled in the release of wonder and trust as we love more in prayer.

In the past two days I’ve been slammed with devastating news.  After speaking at a large event on Monday night I got news from Uganda that our Executive Director at The Vine was brutally attacked.  I sat in the parking lot and cried.  Turns out he was beaten, stoned, and robbed by thugs as he narrowly escaped their death grip.  Immediately we launched into triage mode as we plan, prepare, and pray for his recovery.  He’s a son to me, and when he hurts I ache.

Today I got news that my younger brother is again facing cancer.  Years ago he stared down lymphoma, and now there’s a different cancer threatening him; one that demands months of chemo and a grueling bone marrow transplant.

Then there’s all the groans that are whispered into my ear after I speak at events—“I’m sick and have no money for treatment, my husband doesn’t love me and is leaving the family, I’m about to have an affair, I want to write books but don’t know how, I have dreams and desires but feel trapped in a meaningless life and relationship with God.”  The litany of pain has nowhere to go but to prayer, and yet I sigh with release as the temptation to grit my teeth takes hold.  How can we love more in prayer rather than tense up?  How can we pray with greater depth and purpose?

I’m no expert but I’ve come up with a few new bullet points on prayer. Truthfully, I think until I take my last breath I’ll continue to ask the same question the disciples did, “Lord, teach us to pray.” So here I go:

  • We look for powerful answers to prayer while God is more interested in building powerful faith.  It’s not about how we pray, where we pray, how long we pray, or the words we use when we pray.  All these are the wrapping paper but not the present.  The present is unwrapping the love of God as we struggle to express our requests, desires, and needs.  The Bible says God is love and love never fails. (1 John and 1 Cor.) There’s power in believing that, and that’s the power that enlightens us when we pray.  If love never fails and God loves us; then we can reason that our prayers never fail.  We’re not praying to the sky—we’re praying to a God named love.
  • God answers prayers in His realm of time and isn’t bound by our timeframes.  His answers may seem slow or weird—but that’s because we limit His answers by squishing them into our sense of time.  Know this, God answers every one of your prayers in one of three ways—yes, no, or not yet…but coming soon.  Here’s how that pans out. Yes means yes…doors open and circumstances fit easily into place.  No can mean one of two things;  either God is protecting you from something, or He has something better for you.  Better than what you prayed for!  Not yet can be frustrating.  It means you aren’t ready, or the person or situation you are praying for isn’t ready.  Not yet isn’t no…it’s more like “Coming soon!” It’s not a punishment or neglectful response by God, but rather, a means for preparation and making ready.
  • Answers to prayer will never be seen if we don’t pray.  Lovers of God give a lot of lip service to prayer, but often spend very little time praying.  Remember this—God loves you.  You’re His family.  A good mom or dad doesn’t ignore the needs and desires of their children—they embrace them.  Even if their children come to them in selfishness, confusion, and sin; a good parent isn’t angry at them, they’re just glad they came.

What freedom it is to stop gritting our teeth in prayer.  You’re free to roam the highways, closets, sidewalks, and meadows of God’s unfailing love.


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