I hated prayer as a child. What a useless, boring exercise, I thought. As a Catholic, I was given a beaded rosary, and taught to “say my prayers” every day. That practice consisted of touching the first bead on the rosary, reciting a memorized prayer (either the Hail Mary or Our Father), then touching the next bead and repeating the process. It was a mindless, useless tradition that served no good purpose. Even Jesus in the Bible warned in Matthew 6:7 “”And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
I was speaking with a friend the other day that is battling cancer. Although she would not consider herself a believer, she welcomes anything that might “work”, including prayer. As I reflected on our conversation later, I realized that many people have misconceptions concerning prayer. I thought I’d tackle a few of them today.
One misconception of prayer is that God requires it as a religious exercise, and that the more we pray, the more pleasing to God we are. It is a proof, some would say, of our devotion to our faith. While prayer can and should be an expression of our faith, it’s clear from Matthew 6:7-16 that the Lord isn’t interested in the quantity of our prayers, but rather the attitude of our hearts. God is not impressed with the practice of praying 5 times a day or reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary many times over; what pleases him is humility, mercy, adoration, and faith. Micah 6:8 sums it up nicely: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?”
Sometimes prayer is seen as a way to get what we want. If I want something (healing, a job, a boyfriend, a car, good marks, etc.) and I pray about it, then I should get what I asked for, right? I mean, if I want it, then I deserve it, and if I deserve it, then God should give it to me, right? And if I didn’t get what I asked for, then the conclusion often assumed is that prayer doesn’t work, or that God doesn’t care, or maybe I didn’t have enough faith, or maybe there is no God. These false assumptions and wrong conclusions have led many to abandon their faith or be angry with God.
The truth is that God doesn’t owe us anything. He’s our creator and graciously gives us every breath we breathe, and blesses us abundantly every day, but he does that out of love, and not because we deserve anything from him. He sent his Son to die in our place, to suffer the punishment that we deserve for our sins. He laid down his life for us. How can we have this attitude that he owes us something? We owe *him* something for all he’s done for us! Jesus taught his followers to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, not “our will be done.” (Matthew 6:10) The purpose of prayer is to see God’s will accomplished on earth, not our own.
Prayer is often defined as asking God for something. While prayer certainly includes making requests of God, if that’s the extent of your prayer life, you are missing out on what the Lord intended for you. Let me use an analogy. You will certainly make requests at times of your spouse or child (eg. “Could you pick up some milk on the way home from work?” Or, “Please take out the garbage.”) But if your entire communication with them consists of telling them what you’d like and then expecting them to do it, you wouldn’t have a very intimate relationship with them. In fact, they would probably resent you after awhile.
Making requests is only one small part of your relationship with them. You will need to spend time together, playing, working, celebrating, making memories, showing affection, discussing things, giving to each other, listening to each other, and so on, in order to have a healthy relationship. It’s like that with the Lord as well. Prayer is the means to a close relationship with God. It’s not about asking for things; it’s about spending time with the Lord, celebrating what he’s done, worshipping him, listening to his counsel, pouring out your heart to him, and ultimately trusting him to do what’s right for you. Prayer is date time with God. The verse 1Thessalonians 5:17 exhorts us to “pray without ceasing”. That means to have an attitude of prayer as you go about your day, inviting the Lord to be part of all you do. Prayer is friendship with God.
The last misconception concerns answers to prayer. If we didn’t get what we asked for, does that mean that God didn’t answer my prayer? No, I believe that he hears all our prayers, and answers according to his perfect will. We may not fully understand what his will is, though. It is not always what we expect or want. Why is that person healed, but this one dies? Why does that family seem to have everything so easy, and this family goes through so many difficulties? I don’t know, but God does. When we don’t understand his ways, we have a choice: trust him that he loves us, he knows what’s best, and he is working everything for our good and his glory, as is stated in Romans 8:28; or be offended by God, blaming him and concluding that he doesn’t love us or doesn’t exist. Jesus said in Luke 7:23, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Oh, how blessed, how happy it makes me, not to take offense on account of the Lord when things don’t turn out the way I expected. Instead, as I choose to trust him, I am blessed indeed.