Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: January 10th, 2015
With lots of good intention, many people would rally their fellow believers to pray whenever they encounter some life challenges. It could be health related. It could be some major project milestone. It could also be travel concerns or some dangerous situations a loved one is in. Those of us in ministry would be familiar with such a request.
- Please pray for me, for journey mercies.
- Please pray for my family member who is undergoing some treatment.
- Please pray for the persecuted Christians in country X.
- Please pray for my upcoming job interview.
Maybe, prayer has something to do with a hidden hope. A hope that the journey will be safe; that the family member would have good health results; that the persecution of Christians would stop; that the upcoming job interview would be positive; and so on. This hidden hope is simply wanting to see personal desires fulfilled. More importantly, it is an acknowledgment that we can only do so much, that there are many things not within our own control, that we need help with the fulfilling of our hopes. Who else can we go to when things appear to be spinning out of control?
God, of course.
It is a perfectly normal thing for people to be anxious, which is why Jesus and Paul both spoke about anxieties. In Matthew 6:25-28, Jesus taught us not to be worried about our life, what we eat, drink, wear, or live upon. Instead, we are called to seek the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness as our primary goal. This can sometimes be understood in terms of "God's will be done." In my interactions with many, this is a common understanding, that no matter what happens, God's will be done. Whether we are sick or healthy, whether the diagnosis is positive or negative, whether the result turns out good or bad, we all pray that God's will be done. This very fact forces us to ask the question: "If that is true, why then do we still pray?"
For whether we pray or not, get the results we want or not, we still have to submit to God's will. I believe the end-result is not the purpose of praying. Jesus is less concerned about the facts or formats of prayer. He is more concerned about the heart of prayer.
A) The Heart of Prayer
Understanding what prayer is about is critical to right praying. I am partly troubled by the way Christians sometimes use prayer like a spiritual means to an earthly problem. Suppose a car developed engine trouble on a busy highway. As it sputters away, the driver may offer up a quick plea heavenward for a divine solution to an engineering problem. Hopefully, our God above would simply speak a word and the engine will spin back to life. After all, it does not take much oil or energy from our All-Powerful God to say the Word. The problem with such a prayer call is because it tends to be one-sided, uni-directional request that shoots out from our own perspectives. Following this, we are not sure what else to do. The heart of prayer is not about a one-way request but a two-way communion between God and us. One of my favourite teachers on prayer, Matthew the Poor defines prayer as follows.
"Prayer that is both spiritual and genuine is both a call and a response: a divine call and a human response. This definition of prayer rests on an important fact: Prayer does not reach its power and efficacy as an actual communion with God until man is fully aware that his soul is created in God's image." (Matta al-Miskin, Orthodox Prayer Life, Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003, 21)
Powerful. I am reminded that in prayer, we are always in danger of making God into man's image instead of allowing ourselves to be realized in God's image. In our praying life, the more resistant we are to God's will, the more we are tempted to forced God into our mold. It is like the atheist who challenges God, "Prove to me that you exist and I will then believe." After setting his own timing and expectation, only to hear silence, the atheist then goes on to declare emphatically that there is no God.
Preposterous isn't it? If one can stuff God into a measly human expectation,it is an exercise of simple pandering to humanistic wishes. In prayer, we need to ask ourselves: Am I fitting God into my own image, or am I asking to be formed into God's image more and more?
For the one who prays up an engineering plea, perhaps, it is not about solving the engine problem and more to do about the wisdom to deal with whatever that comes. It is about learning how to respond as a child of God, and to let the wisdom of God rule over all of our actions. It is learning not to be worried by whatever happens to the car but to know how to be Christ's ambassador no matter what happens. Maybe, God is letting the car break down for some specific reason. It is for God to know and for us to find out. If God is Sovereign over all, surely, He knows the big picture behind what is going on.
B) The Efficacy of Prayer
One of the big reasons behind prayer requests is because people are at their wit's end, and want divine intervention. When doctors fail, or when the top experts cannot figure a way out, maybe God can do the magic. The problem I have is the overwhelmingly solution-seeking perspective in such kinds of praying. Any prayer devoid of the relationship is merely a tool to man's end. Any prayer request offered up merely desiring an answer becomes transactional, not relational. The saying of the desert fathers has lots to instruct us.
"For this reason we must first beg of God with struggle in the heart through faith that he grant us to discover his riches, the true treasure of Christ in our hearts, in the power and energy of the Spirit. In such a way, first, by finding the Lord to be our help within us and our salvation and eternal life, we may be of help and profit to others also, insofar as it is possible and attainable, by drawing upon Christ, the treasure within, for all goodness of spiritual discourses and in teaching the heavenly mysteries." (St Macarias the Great)Note the two-way communications and responses. We ask God that we may discover Him. We obtain help that we may help others. We seek the Lord to discover that God has already found us. In searching out the treasures of heaven, we discover that God has laid much treasure within us! This is what prayer effectiveness is about. The efficacy of prayer is about growing beyond self-concerns, toward God and toward others. We discover God. We know ourselves. We share our blessings with others.
C) Vertical and Horizontal Postures
These two postures will help us cultivate a heart of prayer. In the vertical posture, we pray upward, "God's will be done" so that when God speaks to us, we let our hearts be shaped more into the image of Christ. By praying away our worries and concerns, we let God take charge of them, and to trust God will take care of our needs. Our role is to seek God's kingdom and God's righteousness, that our entire human-seeking disposition will be heavenward and God-honouring. We must refrain from stuffing God into our own image, to make God do what we want. Instead, we need to humble ourselves to do what God desires.
The horizontal posture is about learning to bless people around us with our prayers. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, note Phil 4:8 which comes right after the prayer. If verse 6 is about presenting our requests to God and not to be thrown off by anxieties, verse 7 presents to us the peace of God that comes with surrender. This act of submission emboldens us to reflect and to be ready for what God's will is for us.
"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." (Philippians 4:8)
How appropriate. Instead of projecting all kinds of human scenarios and bad outcomes, we are encouraged to think of what is truth, things that matter more to us. Instead of imagining all kinds of problems, we are urged to consider the noble things that can arise out of our situations. Instead of dwelling upon our problems, we learn to consider more of what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, what is admirable. Prayer of the heart includes the transformation of the mind. It galvanizes our whole being to see things more from God's perspective rather than man's.
Prayer as a human concern is mere anxiety reliever or a spiritual pacifier. It does not last. Prayer as a Christ-focused endeavor goes beyond that and prepares us to pray well. This will last. The heart of prayer is about being formed into God's image, with communion with God and community with one another. Move beyond mere prayer that locks God into mere answers. Grow into a praying lifestyle that relates to God personally and to grow to be more like Christ. This is what the heart of prayer is about.
THOUGHT: "Do not separate your heart from God, but remain with Him, and always guard your heart with the remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord takes root in your heart and it thinks of nothing else - that Christ may be magnified in you." (St John Chrysostom)
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