Does prayer “work?” Surprisingly, prayer remains a vital part of American spirituality. Several recent studies have shown that—based on survey results—something like one-half to two-thirds of all Americans claim to praying every day. And that’s independent of their religious affiliation.
I’ve noticed, though—in my own life as much as anywhere—that the urgency of prayer tends to reflect our own circumstances. When all is well, my tendency is to rest on self-sufficiency. Why pray? I got this. Yet when things go poorly, I am unhappily confronted with my own needy dependence.
I find myself wondering if this is why so many of us have such difficulty asking others to pray for us. Sure, asking people to pray for a friend or relative—that’s a perfectly “churchy” thing to do. But pray for ourselves? There’s a vulnerability there that’s just not comfortable.
When Jesus’ first followers spent time with him on earth, they couldn’t help but be impressed with his devotional life. Jesus surely enjoyed an intimacy with his Father that attracted the attention of his disciples:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)
Now, we should probably note that all Israelites knew what to pray. They’d been reciting lines from Deuteronomy 6 their whole life (something called the Shema prayer): “Hear, oh Israel: the Lord your God is one.” But even if God was one, the Jewish community had become fractured by Jesus’ day. We might imagine that John the Baptist borrowed some spiritual elements from the Essenes—a group of desert hippies he probably drew some inspiration from.
Jesus offers them—and us—something of a model:
2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread,
4 and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:2-4)
Now, some of us may have grown up repeating this until we were able to mouth the words without thinking. Repetition may be the straightest route to memory, but doesn’t necessarily provoke intimacy. Jesus’ point was that our prayer lives should be marked and shaped by profound intimacy with God. Yes; personal requests (such as for provision and forgiveness) are a part of our prayer lives, but it is intimacy with God that allows us to be made complete. In his recent book on prayer, Tim Keller writes:
“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.” (Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, p. 18)
Few things are as valuable as this intimacy. Prayer is a means to this end. When I am preoccupied with my own ends, my own fulfillment, my prayer life becomes stunted through selfish, slavish devotion to my own happiness. But when prayer becomes a means toward relationship, joy flourishes independently of my circumstances. The clouds roll back. Wonder reappears.
Jesus’ parables on prayer, therefore, are powerful ways of confronting his hearers with their own attitudes toward prayer. Join us this Sunday as we explore what Jesus has to teach us on this important subject.