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.
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.