Prayer is absolutely essential to spiritual life. One might be saved and not read the Bible. He might be blind or unable to read. One might be saved without going to church, though a Christian is inconceivable in the New Testament without commitment to the church. But the Christian might be where there is no church or he might be an invalid who could not attend public services. But if we are saved, we must pray.
An Early Apostasy
Prayer is the cry of the soul to God. It is opening one's heart to God as one opens his heart to a friend, involving intimacy, trust, understanding. In Holy Scripture prayer is adoration, confession, praise, thanksgiving, consecration, communion, petition. The chief word in the New Testament and the one used by Paul to recommend prayer "without ceasing" means "to approach and attach one's self to," "to move toward," "to turn one's thoughts and attention to," "to worship," "to pay court to," "to offer vows." This word could be used, accompanied by other words, to mean adoration, confession, praise, thanksgiving, consecration, communion, and petition. The church could have concentrated on any one of these forms of prayer, but in what could be a throwback to the heathen idea of prayer, the church concentrated on the idea of petition. The Latin Church used precari (meaning "to implore," "beseech," "beg"). Possibly this was one of the early apostasies, making prayer in the official concept much less than it really is. Actually, prayer envelops all our relationships to God.
Roadblocks to Prayer
Now, evil makes prayer impossible. The Master mentioned two evils that block communion with God:
- Impurity. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8).
- Vindictiveness. An unbrotherly spirit that will not forgive or seek to be forgiven. Jesus made very clear the right procedure. "'If, when you are bringing your gift to the altar, you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make your peace with your brother, and only then come back and offer your gift'" (Matt. 5:23, 24, N.E.B.).*
Wrong or Right
No one can be wrong with man and right with God. Nor can prayer be made a substitute for work. Some try to make prayer a substitute for intelligence and effort. There are three chief ways in which men cooperate with God: thinking, working, and praying. None of the three can ever take the place of another. Each has its peculiar realm.
No Substitute for Work
Consider what this world would become if everything could be accomplished by prayer. What if men could sail their ships as well by prayer alone as by knowledge of the science of navigation, could swing their bridges as firmly by petition as by studying engineering laws, could light their houses, send their messages, and work out their philosophies by mere entreaty? If a boy asks his father to work out his arithmetic lesson because he wishes to be idle, the wise father who loves his boy will not comply. The boy's request (prayer) must not be made a substitute for intellectual discipline. God surely requires us as individuals and as a race to endure the disciplines of painful enterprise and struggle rather than to find easy relief in asking.
Nor are we to pray because of fear and a desire for God's protection. He will protect us as a result of sincere and proper prayer; our motivation, however, must not be fear. It must be love and obedience. Some, you see, would hang a prayer, so to speak, around their neck as a charm against possible disaster; but in such petitions one may not in any way hallow the name of God, and such prayer may be a travesty.
"We must not conceive of prayer," wrote the saintly Trench, "as an attempt to overcome God's reluctance, but as laying hold of His highest willingness."
Prayer is not designed to change God, but to change us. The chief aim of the prayer is for the supplicant to come so completely into harmony with God that God's will becomes his. Then the supplicant becomes a partner with God and is ready to cooperate with Him in whatever God wants. He identifies his will and purpose with God's will and purpose. Then God, if need be, can lift his mind from what he prayed for, to something better. The supplicant will realize that God is working on His plan and that all things will work together for good.
And certainly, our prayers should be involved more with spiritual blessings than material blessings. Origen recalled this word from apostolic days: "Ask the great things and the little things will be added unto you; ask the heavenly things and the earthly things will be added unto you."
The example of Jesus teaches that we are to pray alone and we are to pray together. Jesus dismissed the crowd and went up into the hills to pray alone. He also taught His disciples to pray, "Our Father which art in heaven." And He promised, "If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven" (Matt. 18:19, R.S.V.).
Let us then pray earnestly, spontaneously, with confidence, trust, and faith.
* From The New Testament in Modern English, © J. B. Phillips 1958. Used by permission of The Macmillan Company