What’s the Point of Prayer?


What do you think about when you think about prayer?

I have a confession: throughout my life I’ve had moments of skepticism regarding the value of prayer. Does prayer accomplish anything or is it simply wishful thinking?

Over the years I’ve learned that a lot of people avoid prayer because they’re afraid that it might not work and by that they mean that their requests won’t be fulfilled. So they keep prayer at a distance, safely tucked away and pulled out for religious occasions.

You’ve likely heard the maxim that “prayer changes me more than it changes God.” Perhaps that is true, but I would put it this way: prayer is the arena in which God changes me. When we pray, we are being drawn into a conversation that has already been going on long before we show up. Prayer draws us into God’s life, helping us align our desires with his.

Henri Nouwen says it beautifully when he writes that “prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us.”

One of the ways prayer changes us is by giving us a new vision. In my own experience, prayer has afforded me the possibility of having a new set of eyes for seeing people and situations.

Jesus was known to say, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

If you’ve ever tried to pray for someone you dislike, or who has offended you, it doesn’t take long to realize why Jesus invites us to pray for those who persecute us. It’s not simply because Christians should be “nice” to all people, it’s much more. When we pray for our enemies, we’ll inevitably be put in a position to think about what would be best for them. What do we hope for him or her?  What do we want for them? When we pray for those we are against (or those who are against us), we’re not complaining about them or focusing on how they offended us,  but wishing good for them and hoping the best for them.

This is brilliant!

When we pray, we’re letting God give us a new perspective on the people we would otherwise dismisson the people we would otherwise want to avenge, and want to see fail.

It gets better: prayer doesn’t only do this for our relationships, but for any situation in our lives that might seem like “an enemy”the moments in life where we feel like everything is working against us and things seem hopeless, aimless, pointless.

As a pastor, I have had times with people who reveal their grievances and complaints about someone who has offended them. In these situations, I’ve learned to follow up with an important question: “What do you hope for them?” This question is usually rhetorical, but important. It draws them into the transformative practice of beginning to actually pray for their enemy.

Prayer is the place where we are challenged to discover what God wants for a person, a circumstance, a next step.

Prayer gives us a new set of eyes for the people who get on our nerveseven those closest to us. When Jesus invites us to pray, he invites us to develop a future vision to see beyond the faults of those who offend us.

This is what prayer does: it gives us vision. It opens up possibilities. It says “yes” when everything in you wants to say “no.”  In prayer, God takes us away from our present offences to a greater vision of what could be.

So prayer, more than merely a tool for requests, is a means of transforming our very desires. Prayer is a means of changing our “hunger and thirst.” Prayer helps us have the wants that God wants.

Perhaps the lack of hope and vision for our lives (or our children’s lives, our marriages, our relationships) is often due to a lack of prayer.

I know I’ve found this to be true in my own life.

In fact, when Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, he was defining perfection.

“Be perfect, just like your Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.”

For Jesus, perfection means we live with a deep hope even in the most broken situations; that nobody and nothing in our lives is beyond repair.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Next time you feel anger or offence, ask yourself what God may want you to want for your offender. It won’t be hard to figure out, and maybe in that process you’ll find yourself loving your enemy, praying for your persecutor, and just a little closer to perfection.

The Challenge of Solitude

We are addicted to being busy.

In the western culture at least, we love to achieve, excel, and be persistently hurried to move on to the next thing. More than ever we need space to practice solitude, to be away from the noise, the frenzied lifestyle that renders us deaf to God’s gentle voice.

A couple weeks ago I went away for a a few days of silence and solitude. On my return I questioned whether I was supposed to feel more rested or not. I realized that in past experienced, I did feel rested, but not this time.

Indeed, the ancient christian practice of silence and solitude isn’t merely meant for us to find physical rest—it’s much bigger than that.

I’ve had times of solitude and silence in the past but this time around, it felt like I was riding a bicycle for the first time. It was a bit shaky, awkward, imbalanced and full of failure. It took some time for me to get into the right headspace. I kept doubting myself as to whether I was “doing it right.” Should I pray more? Read more? Eat less?

It was the first time in a long time—over a year—that I hadn’t had a time of silence and solitude, but I’m encouraged to know that like most spiritual disciplines, they get stronger and more fluid with practice. You start to know where the pedals are without looking, how to have the best possible posture for optimum balance, and you learn to get off and on as though the bike becomes an additional limb.  When the practice of solitude and silence becomes part of your rule and rhythm of life, you will get better at it.

Secondly,  I didn’t return from my day of solitude “rested” because of what solitude is actually for.  Henri Nouwen puts it best when he says that “solitude is the furnace of transformation.” When Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to be alone with the father, he encountered temptations and wild animals. Similarly, solitude is the place where we face our own devils—our pain, our guilt, our shame, our temptations—the things that God wants to set us free from. It’s a place of honest introspection, where everything comes out and we encounter the truth about who and where we really are.

This may be emotionally and physically burdensome.

Indeed, the place of solitude is a place where one might feel quite far from God, because they are coming to grips with their own godlessness.  In the classic book on contemplative prayer, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” the writer speaks of a “cloud” that seems to separate us from God when first seeking him in long  periods of contemplation, silence, and solitude. God may seem distant, far, even angry.

This is why Dallas Willard reminds us that  “we can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.” Having our emotional trauma and baggage show up (when we thought we were done with it all) can be distressing both physically and emotionally—this is the “furnace” part that all transformation requires.

Henri Nouwen beautifully describes what silence and solitude with God can cause us to feel:

Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born…

In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing.

It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. 

But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory…

The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ (The Way of the Heart, p. 27-28).

This is the challenge of solitude: to make room for us to see our own need for Jesus and to truly trust him to make us new. Even when everything in us wants to run way, go to our usual comforts, and take matters in our own hands.

There’s a greater goal to solitude than rest—it’s trust.

Trust that God is not a far off punishing and angry God, but a close, loving father, who loves us too much to let us stay the way we are.

The challenge of solitude is the challenge of the furnace—the fire—of transformation.