More Americans will pray this week than will exercise, drive a car, or go to work. According to Gallup polls and Barna surveys, nine in ten of us pray regularly, and three out of four claim to pray every day. But as multiple surveys dig a little bit deeper, they consistently find obstacles that keep those same people from experiencing satisfaction in prayer. About 6 in 10 Christians say that it’s “often” or “always” true that “the busyness of life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God through prayer.” (Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky; source: “Survey: Christians Worldwide Too Busy For God,” http://www.christianpost.com)
Why does prayer rank so high on surveys of theoretical importance and so low on surveys of actual satisfaction?
Recently, I’ve asked others, How often do you pray? Approximately how long? What time of day? Are you satisfied with your prayer life? Do you sense the presence of God when you pray? All regard prayer as important, even paramount, and yet, many like me, feel guilty about their failure to pray more, blaming themselves, complaining about the busyness of life that keeps them from praying more.
Philip Yancey in his book on prayer writes, “Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn’t act the way we want God to, and why I don’t act the way God wants me to.” Our biblical theology tells us that prayer is the essential human act, a priceless point of contact with the God of the universe. In practice, however, prayer is, at times, confusing and fraught with frustration.
One of the primary purposes of the church on earth is to pray for God’s will to be done as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). In the beginning of the church, the believers in Jesus Christ persisted and persevered in the fellowship of prayer as the church (Acts 2:42). We know that we should pray. We know that we’re even commanded by God to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:16-18). Certainly, there are times when we do pray. But why should we pray?
Naturally, as if by instinct we cry out to God when trouble strikes. A parent hovering over a sick child, a job interview, a driver caught in a hail storm — we call upon God when in danger, sometimes with an appeal no more articulate than “Oh, God, help me!” During those moments, forget any lofty notion of keeping company with God. I want help from the God who is much greater than me. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” Army chaplains like to say.
Other times, we pray for trivial things. Take sporting events, for example. If two believers are competing against each other and praying for their team to win, whom does God listen to? Does He even listen? Is God more compelled to hear a player because he “Tebowed?”
Why pray? Especially when God’s presence seems so far away, I wonder if prayer is just a pious form of talking to myself. Richard Mouw tells a story about a tourist who observes a devout Jewish man praying at the Western (“Wailing”) Wall in Jerusalem: The Jew rocks back and forth with closed eyes, beating his breast, sometimes raising his hands. When he finishes, the tourist asks, “What do you pray for?” The Jew responds, “I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world, especially in Jerusalem.” The tourist asks, “Are these prayers effective?” The man praying replied, “It’s like talking to a wall.”
Maybe like me, you’ve prayed for people to be healed – who weren’t. I’ve prayed for marriages to be reconciled and relationships to be restored, only to see people walk away from each other. If God really loves us as much as the Bible claims, why do we have to ask Him for what we need and want? Shouldn’t He give us these things without our having to ask for them? If God is sovereign and in control, why should He listen to my perspective and my pleas?
This week, a dear friend sent me a facebook message: “Larry, I do pray — without ceasing — but I have to be honest with you, at the risk of sounding like a “less than” Christian. I wonder if prayer actually does any good if God has already decided the outcome.”
If I had to answer the question “Why pray?” in one sentence it would be, “Because Jesus did.” In order to become men and women who move heaven and earth by prayer, we need more than just information – we need to understand the motivation that leads to transformation. The Bible says we pray because of the Incarnation. If we look to God’s Word for why should pray and how we should pray, it seems that the prayer life of Jesus is a great place to begin. Being the eternal Son of God and the incarnate Word of God, Jesus bridged the great chasm between the Father and humanity. While on earth He became vulnerable, as we are vulnerable; rejected, as we are rejected; as tested as we are tested. In every case, His response was prayer.
The twelve disciples whom Jesus chose were no doubt men who prayed. They had been raised in a culture that valued and practiced prayer, and each of their hearts must have been prayerfully tender toward God for each man to leave everything to follow after Jesus when He called them to follow. And yet, as the disciples went on to closely observe Jesus, they consistently noticed a stark difference between their way of praying and the prayer life of the Lord Jesus. In the presence of these Twelve men, Jesus both taught and modeled a radical life of prayer, and it caught their attention.
We see this for example in Luke 11:1. Jesus was praying at a certain place and when Hefinished one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They wanted the same reality and vitality of prayer that Jesus experienced. So He taught them. And everything He taught, He also lived out before them. Jesus urged His disciples to “always pray and never lose heart” (Luke 18:1) and to “cry out day and night” to God (18:7) and to “keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking” on Heaven’s door with confident assurance of the Father’s loving heart (Matt. 7:7-11).
Hearing Jesus say these things, the Twelve could not forget that even while He ministered to “great multitudes” through continual preaching and healing, “He often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). They had witnessed how “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, went out, and made His way to a deserted place where He prayed” (Mark 1:35). They knew that on the night before He chose them as apostles, Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Perhaps the Disciples most profound memory of Jesus’ prayer life was in the Garden of Gethsemane:
39 He went out and made His way as usual to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed Him. 40 When He reached the place, He told them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 Then He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray, 42 “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me—nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.44 Being in anguish, He prayed more fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. 45 When He got up from prayer and came to the disciples, He found them sleeping, exhausted from their grief. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” He asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation. (Luke 22:39-46)
The conclusion is inescapable: Jesus’ prayer life was the key to both His life and ministry. At each major juncture, and every key decision point, we find Jesus praying.
Why pray? The simplest and best answer that I see is because Jesus did. Listen to what God says to us thru Hebrews 5:7:
“During His earthly life, He offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverence.”
Jesus, in His humanity, prayed to the Father, just as we pray to Him in our own humanity. The phrase “earthly days” or literally, “in the days of His flesh” in Hebrews 5:7 draws attention to the human weakness that characterized Jesus during His earthly life.From the Bible’s perspective, God says that the characteristics of His Son’s prayer life, especially when we consider His complete humanity, are to be true for every believer and every church. In Jesus we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, including our weaknesses in prayer. At no point can the objection be voiced that because He was the Son of God that praying was different or that it was easier for Him.
So often, as we read about Jesus we fail to make the connection between His example and our own experience. We reason that Jesus knew God the Father better and after all, He was God. As we look at the life of Jesus it becomes equally evident that there’s a significant difference between how Jesus prayed and the prayer life of many Christians today. Recognizing this gap, it’s easy to feel that His heart for prayer and the dynamic characteristics of His prayer life are things that will never become a part of our own experience. But God not only desires that we pray like His Son, but He enables us to do so. Through His Holy Spirit within us, the Father is working to conform us to the image of His Son, and this transformation through the renewing of our mind will preeminently involve and impact our why and how we pray. “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time” (Hebrews 4:16).
Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears, just as we pray to Him deeply from the heart. “He offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The fact that the Cup was not removed at Gethsemane (Luke 22:42) qualifies Jesus all the more to sympathize with His people when we are faced with the mystery and trial of prayer – especially when the Father answers “no” or “not yet.” We know that Jesus as our great High Priest was tested in the same way and did not seek a way of escape by supernatural means that we don’t have at our disposal.
To discount prayer, to conclude that it doesn’t matter, means to view Jesus as deluded. Jesus truly believed that prayer could and does change things. He taught us that when life gets too hard to stand – kneel. Jesus offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears because He trusted the Father’s plan through His pain. You, too, can call out to God with loud cries and tears because He always has a purpose for your pain.
Jesus prayed with a heart of submission to God’s will, just as we pray by surrendering our desires. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus teaches us to pray. “Not my will, but Yours, be done,” Jesus cried out “to the One who was able to save Him from death,” but didn’t. Jesus clung to prayer as a lifeline, for it gave Him both the guidance and the energy to know and do the Father’s will. For most of us prayer serves as a resource to help in a time of testing, conflict, or pain. For Jesus, it was the battle itself. Once the Gethsemane prayers had aligned Him with the Father’s will, what happened next was merely the means to fulfill it. Prayer mattered that much to Jesus, that’s why it matters so much to us, too.
Had I been there and witnessed Jesus’ struggle sweating great drops of blood, I would have worried about the future. “If Jesus is so broken up when all He is doing is praying,” I might have said, “what will He do when He faces a real crisis? Why can’t He approach this ordeal with the calm confidence of His three sleeping friends?” Yet, when the test came, Jesus walked to the cross with courage, and his three friends fell apart and fell away. Jesus prayed to the Father and it made a difference.
Jesus prayed and was heard, just as God hears us when we pray. Just because God is silent, that doesn’t mean that He’s still. All prayer by the Son was heard by the Father, as is all prayer from all of His children. When we look at the life of Jesus we see an absolute trust and confidence that His prayers were not only heard, but answered. The author of Hebrews confirms it, “He was heard because of His reverence.”
When doubts creep in and I wonder whether prayer is just a sanctified form of talking to myself, I remind myself that the Son of God, who had spoken worlds into being and sustains all that exists, felt a compelling need to pray. He prayed as if it made a difference, as if the time he devoted to prayer mattered every bit as much as the time he devoted to caring for people. Jesus prayed because He knew the Father heard His cries and saw His tears. And we know that prayer matters because after leaving earth, Jesus made it one of His primary tasks in heaven to pray for us (Hebrews 7:25).
As we continue to learn how to really pray with faith that moves mountains and a dependency that moves us closer to the God who made them, it seems our first prayer to Jesus should be, “Lord, teach us to pray.”