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.

Pray: Learning to be Present to Jesus

For you created my inmost being;
     you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
     your works are wonderful,
     I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
     when I was made in the secret place
     when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
     all the days ordained for me were written in your book
     before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:13-16

One of the hardest parts of prayer is the act of being present to Jesus while doing it. Yes, Jesus is always present when we pray, but we’re great at multitasking, especially when praying. I could be praying and simultaneously thinking about the next book to read, idea to ponder, or email draft that needs to go out. (I confess, I have an unnatural desire to plan ahead in such a way that takes me from “being in the moment”).

Instead of simply being, I want to be doing.

We all have an intrinsic desire to produce, to be useful and effective, to have satisfaction from our work, and that’s not a bad thing (in fact, I’m totally for productivity, and I wrote a post about a tool to help you with that here). But most of our work is driven by a sense of self-importance, wondering “if I don’t send out that email and make that work schedule, who will?” It may be true, but why is it that in the midst of those activities, we rarely have the urge to sit still and be quiet before Jesus?

We live scattered lives, driven by the stress we complain about and go to bed thinking, “I should pray more.”

One of the things that has helped me with feeling scattered is the practice of silence. Not just being quiet, but quieting your mind, stopping yourself from thinking about what needs to get done, and reflecting on a word or phrase, like “Jesus” or “God is love” or “you are good.” I’ve been going through a book by Peter Scazzero called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Day by Day, which contain two short devotionals for every day. Each devotional begins and ends with two minutes of silence, stillness and centering before God, with a short reflection on scripture in between. I rarely expect this kind of thing to make an impact on my days, but I’ve seen it happen. I feel lighter, more aware of God’s continual presence, with a new courage to face who I really am and oppose being driven by the dictates of others.

The practice of silence is a like a workout for your brain. Returning to the gym after missing a few days will feel painful on your body. Likewise, when I miss a day or two of silence and reflection, I notice the impact when I pick it up again. With practice I’ve grown stronger in my ability to silence my mind and when I am consistently being present to Jesus in those small moments, it changes the rest of the day and every ounce of self-importance struggle to defend my dignity slowly dissipate into a weightless shadow. As I learn to be present to Jesus, I, like the psalmist, begin to know the true me.

Pope John Paul II on prayer

“Prayer is also the revelation of that abyss which is the heart of man: a depth which comes from God and which only God can fill, precisely with the Holy Spirit.”

– Pope John Paul II

The Dark Night of the Soul

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

– Psalm 13:1-2

I have felt a longing which is difficult to put into words and yet which I can no longer restrain from articulating. It feels as though this longing has been with me too long. It feels like years long. It feels like a longing for the clarity of day, or for a satiating breakfast after sleeping in. I long for vision to see, imagination to create and courage to love. Perhaps it’s a longing for true intimacy, a longing for God himself, to be awakened by his Word, his Church, and his work in the world.

His Kingdom.

I know that God is not silent nor distant. But I, on the other hand, am deaf and blind, hearing only quiet tremors and seeing brief glimpses of his Kingship. I am listless, visionless, and shrouded in darkness. A deafening thunder and worrisome cloudiness drown out the tremors and glimpses of God’s person and work.

Do not be fooled, the Dark Night of the Soul lasts much longer than a night.

But, despite the failed attempts, the feeling of fatherlessness, the certitude of being unable to get through to God, the dark and the nights are for our benefit. St. John of the Cross calls it “sheer grace,” singing,

O guiding night!

            O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

            the Love with His beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her Lover

Prolonged night and darkness are meant to strip away the distractions that provide us with illusions of light and day—illusions of vision and hearing. The sights and sounds that we credit as meaning-giving are revealed for what they are—illusions. But with time, the illusions no longer satisfy the depths of our longing, or better, we realize that they never have.

So, God lovingly draws us into the dark night of the soul that we may see and hear him more clearly. And together with the Psalmist, we pray:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

    because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

– Psalm 13:5-6


Praying Sacramentally

There are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.


The Miracle of Preaching and Praying

Yesterday I received a text from my pastor, asking me, 3 hours before he was supposed to preach, if I had a sermon ready. What he was asking me to do was prepare and preach a sermon in three hours time, because he may or may not make it in time to preach what he had prepared. I dropped my plans for the afternoon and sought to make the best of it. I anxiously prepared some notes, and finally on my way to church I got a call from him saying that he was going to make it in time.

Major sigh.

I can’t explain what that felt like, but I’m sure that it was anything but random. Reflecting on this experience has allowed me to assess my notion of divine dependancy – and what sermonizing should look like. I was tempted to wallow in pity, complain about the situation, and doubt my ability and calling to carry out the task at hand. But believing that God is sovereign means believing that this is no surprise to him. In fact, if I must crash and burn, it is for my good.

In those three hours, I managed to think a little bit about prayer.

There is no recipe or formula to prayer. It seems we tend to think that God will only listen or respond when we have the right words, or the right length of our prayers, or even the right motives. The problem with this approach is that it is focused mostly on the act of praying itself, rather than the person we’re speaking to.  We tend to think that before we can pray, our lives need to be straightened out, or we need to know more about how to pray, and or we need a better grasps of the traditions of prayer.

Those are all good things for sure, but if we are fixated on them, the mode and content of prayer can easily become more important than the God we’re praying to.

Likewise, in the unanticipated moment of preparing and delivering a sermon, I had the choice to ponder on the opinions of hearers, and the degree of eloquence of my speech, rather than the beauty, grandeur, and work of God. Sermonizing in general can lose its power, becoming an intellectual task, a performance for hearers, a simple distribution of nice sounding words, rather than a work of the Spirit’s power.

As I enter into a season that will offer many opportunities to preach, I must come to terms with the challenge of keeping in tension the hard work behind the sermon and the utter  dependence of God’s work. There needs to be this tension, if not, one will outweigh the other. Paul says to Timothy, Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything (2 Tim 2:7). I say tension because it is not an easy flowing, mysterious-less, domino-effect, process. I don’t have the keys to his work – He is working, and I am joining. I don’t produce God’s work. God just works. The miracle encapsulated in the Gospel is that He always initiates, and we, by grace, join. Likewise with prayer; if we don’t view God as Father, we will make prayer a simple interchange of goods, a business transaction, a sense of entitlement with requests that make God do what we want. Sermon prep, like prayer, is seeking to be at one with God,  knowing what he’s saying, how he’s working, and joining him, entering into his Story he invites us to participate in.

This is the miracle of preaching and praying.