We’ve all seen a plaque like this and have probably nodded in agreement. But just what are those ‘things’ that prayer changes?
An acquaintance tells the story of a young friend who remarked: “I tried praying to God, but nothing happened, so I didn’t do it again.” That reaction reveals an unfortunate misunderstanding of what prayer is all about.
James 5:16 assures us: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” That qualifying phrase ‘righteous person’ should give us pause. It reminds us that God isn’t some kind of cosmic dispensary to process our random requisitions. Rather, effective prayer always involves being in a right relationship with Him. Now there are numerous aspects to this, but let’s talk about two specific things that should always accompany our prayer requests – let’s call them the partners of effective prayer.
The first ‘prayer partner’ is a willingness to listen. Too often we conduct our prayers as monologues where we are like small children intent on telling a parent what’s on our minds. Now like any loving parent, God doesn’t take offense at that – in fact, He thoroughly delights in hearing us unburden our hearts to Him. But just as our own children profit most when they also listen to the guidance we can give them, so we too experience the full power of prayer only when we are receptive to what God has to say to us. You see, the essence of prayer is conversation with God – both telling and listening. The reality is that our Heavenly Father already knows our real needs way better than we do, and He will lovingly address them even when we struggle to recognize and express them ourselves. So though God longs to be asked, it’s not that He needs to be told what’s best for us! Rather, the practice of prayer is about building a relationship of sharing and trust. And just as for any other relationship, that means being attentive listeners.
But how does this happen? Most of us have not had an experience of literally hearing God’s voice, and honestly, that would probably be more than a little unnerving! And none of us want to be one of those deluded souls who’s convinced he’s got God’s private cell-phone number! So how DO we listen to God when we pray?
Well, there’s no one-size-fits all answer to that question: Christians have encountered God speaking to them in many different ways. Some of those experiences have been very dramatic (e.g., Acts 9), but more commonly they come in the form of gentle “nudges” that urge us to look at things in a different way. Those who make prayer a regular part of their life know that though God is indeed capable and willing to change our external circumstances, the most important ‘things’ that prayer changes are often internal to us: the softening of an unforgiving heart, the strengthening of a wavering resolve, an openness to a different way of thinking, the healing of a broken spirit. Thus, the way we oftentimes ‘hear’ God’s voice is by recognizing the changes He works in us.
Many would agree that the most important place to seek God’s voice is in His written Word. It’s not that we expect to find the answer by poking a finger into a random page of the Bible (although there are many stories of just that happening) but rather that we come to know our God, His ways, and His will for us when we regularly and attentively seek Him in the pages of Holy Scripture. Prayer and Bible reading are inseparable companions.
And finally, effective listening to God always involves trust. Through prayer, God does indeed change things for our eternal good, even when our own outlook is limited. Anyone with a rich prayer life will have examples where God didn’t deliver what was asked for, but something far better! And often it takes us a very long time (sometimes never) to recognize that God has indeed responded lovingly to our prayers. Thus we lay our needs in His hands and trust confidently in his almighty power, wisdom, and love.
(But what about that second ‘prayer partner’ we promised? That’s the subject for a future Fish Hooks.)