What is the purpose of prayer?

Over the past year, I have prayed for several people fighting illnesses. A number of them did not make it. All were committed Christians. One, a pastor’s wife, shined God’s light into a great many lives. Upon hearing of her death, I remember thinking if God didn’t heal such a woman, what hope would I have were I in a similar situation. With each passing, I struggled with what felt like a combination of health anxiety and a faith crisis. Through time and prayer, I eventually moved through it. In recent days, however, the struggle has returned.

Last August Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim and Christian author and apologist, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. As he proceeded to undergo radiation, with so many praying, things seemed hopeful. But recently he learned the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes and, while options are still being discussed, things are not looking great. I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for him and others in similar battles. For myself, I feel all prayed out. A frustrating, panicky question has started to emerge in my mind—“why pray if God would say no?”

Yes, the attitude of prayer is guided by Jesus’ words “not my will, but Yours be done”. We try to maintain this attitude before God through all our prayers, but I wonder if we’re able to fully appreciate this attitude unless we are possibly going to our death. In these prayers, people are not asking for a job promotion, relationship, or certain conflict to work out; people are asking, begging God to not let them die. To let them live. What good is prayer if God would say no to that?

While attempting to navigate and struggle through this subject and its inherent sadness, probably not as much as so many others have and do, my thoughts gradually turned from “why pray if God would say no?” to “what is prayer’s overall purpose?”

As Jesus prepares to go to his own death, he tells his disciples in the upper room “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

We know this passage; we cite it often to God when we want something of Him. But is there more to it? Jesus’ comment here occurs between two segments of a larger conversation stream.

The first segment is a series of comments (John 14:9-12) wherein Jesus reveals he is the image of the Father (v9), is speaking the words of the Father (v10), and is doing the works of the Father (v10-11). And just as he is able to do these things because he abides in the Father, Jesus also goes on to say that after he leaves, whoever believes and abides in him will continue in his work (v12). The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s salvation work being carried out on Earth through the Son, and those who continue to abide in him as his Church body.

So in v13 when Jesus says “whatever you ask in My name, that will I do”, it is on behalf of the Father’s salvation work being facilitated through Jesus that he answers those prayers—“so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. God will answer our prayers in order to support his Christ-centered salvation work continued through the Body of Christ because they are how the Son now glorifies the Father.

The second segment is a series of comments (John 14:15-26) in which Jesus conveys that for the sake of living in holy behavior (v15), our lives are being immersed into a Trinitarian reality (v16-26); an existence that consists of living to glorify the Father by abiding in the Son through the operative power and guidance of his Holy Spirit. Participating in the Father’s work of exalting the Son requires a holiness born in the Spirit. The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s sanctifying work being carried out through the Spirit within Christ’s Church body.

How is this related to Jesus’ preceding prayer instructions in John 14:13-14? The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is the Father’s answer to our prayerful requests to continue in His salvation work of exalting Christ. The purpose of praying and asking in Jesus’ name is to get us in on the Father’s salvation work in Christ by first getting us in on the Father’s sanctifying work in the Spirit.

Are we to petition God? Yes. Are we to ask God for provision? Yes. Are we to ask God for healing? Yes. Can we trust God? Yes. But over and beyond, the purpose of prayer is not as much about getting or being given something as it is about growing into and becoming someone. Prayer is a privilege given us to bring us into God’s abiding presence. We pray because prayer is formational; prayer shapes Christ in us. Prayer takes us beyond ourselves and plunges us deeply into the presence, perspective, and personhood of Christ.

How might this message edify or encourage? For the Christian believer who is nearing death, the one who still has years to live, or one who is all prayed out, Christ-exalting, Spirit-formed prayer expands our perceptions to see that the magnificent work of God fills a span of time whose vastness is far greater than that of our own years. The work of God is transcending history, transforming life, and ultimately, translating existence into Christ’s newness. God’s salvation and sanctifying work is never finished; it was ongoing before our birth and it will outlive us. Prayer places us into his work as participants, to become a people whose lives are conformed to Christ. And after our time is over, our prayers keep us connected to this work that is greater than ourselves, for a plea from our spirits to God’s Holy Spirit does not die with us; it continues on through the work for which it has pled.

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Journeying Jesus’ way to pray | Matthew 6:9-13

Jesus has been talking about using prayer hypocritically for show, impressing people to gain respect or influence.  He tells his followers, however, to conduct their prayers in secret.  He continues in Matthew 6:9 “Pray, then, in this way…”

In this way.  Everything Jesus has said in this sermon on the mount constitutes a way of living, a kingdom way; a journey in which we are made his disciples.  The way we love, the way we give, the way we talk, the way we overlook an offense, the way we interact—these are all ways we are formed into his followers.  Thus Jesus’ words here provide another way that is formatively foundational for following.  This “Lord’s prayer” is a framework for all prayer; it espouses a substance on which all prayer is nurtured.  All our prayers should mature and grow into the redemptive reality in which Jesus’ prayer is rooted.  Praying the substance of his prayer shapes in us the mindset of Jesus which, to begin with, is centered in the Father.

“Our Father who is in heaven…”  Jesus is the perfect image of the Father; in John 14:9 he says if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father.  Following Jesus is ultimately about abiding in the Father.  Jesus casts our prayerful imaginations beyond our selves and surroundings to perceive the Father whose mighty and majestic sovereign presence permeates the heavens, consequently permeating our minds with his magnificence, captivating our attention.  In this way, prayer humbles our hearts by lifting our minds. 

“Hallowed be Your name…”  Once our minds have been elevated and stretched to perceive the Father reigning over us, we are now able to find satisfaction in his sovereignty and delight in his magnificence by letting our minds ponder the vastness of his splendor, awed in his mystery.  Holy, set apart, unique, hallowed; his is a name regarded with reverence, treasured and cherished above any other.  A name that holds all the hope for the present and the future.  With our minds lifted heavenward, perceiving this heavenly holy one, Jesus opens our mouths to pray…

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Father might abide a ways beyond us, but he refuses to abide away from us.  He is not content to remain isolated from us but must make his dwelling with us.  His salvation work consists of taking his kingdom, that redemptive reality being shaped in his celestial realm, and establishing it amongst our earthly existence so we in this world may participate in the work of heaven.  In Jesus, the Father chooses to abide in our neighborhoods of flesh and blood, working his will within us.  Seeing salvation at work through incarnation, we see we are not alone, not abandoned; that this is all according to plan.  What was a promised redemption is becoming a redeemed reality, full of a restfulness in which we can now pray…

“Give us this day our daily bread…”  The Father’s sovereignty and salvation work show us we need not fear the future.  We can hope in him here and now and know we are being provided for, protected; we now have the blessed rest-filled assurance to ask for daily bread.  Bread—it’s a very physical, earthy request; moments before, we’re thinking lofty, heavenly, spiritual thoughts about a Father who is hallowed, sacred, above us, beyond us, but now we’re talking about physical, crummy bread.

Asking for bread in a conversation with God connects the physical with the spiritual, a critical aspect for understanding Christian spirituality.  It shows us the Father is as much concerned with physical realities as with spiritual realities.  Christian spirituality is not merely about mystical niceties or pious idealizations, but how these wonderful spiritual realities are lived and worked out within our fleshly limitations and physical boundaries, the preservation and perseverance of which requires bread.  The Father knows we need physical provision, and in providing it, the truth of his salvation is unfolded and revealed, reverberating redemptive reality through our spirits, enabling us to respond to his mercy.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…”  Forgiveness is God’s grace-filled act of balance.  It is a blessed dynamic that brings us into holy harmony with God, each other, and ourselves.  Whereas daily bread preserves the flesh, forgiveness perseveres our spirit, and not just for ourselves.  Forgiveness is not exclusively static, but inclusively vibrant.  It reverberates through the disciple’s relationships, echoing grace all over the place.  The forgiveness graced upon us by the Father flows out from us onto those around us.  Its cyclical nature shows forgiveness is the impetus of kingdom community.  As prayer forms in us a forgiveness-nature, we are cultivated into a God-aware community whose physical and spiritual needs are given provision and preservation from a Father whose salvation work encompasses the whole of our being.

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”  The way in which we follow Jesus to the Father will always involve trials, but he teaches us to pray discerningly here that those trials never give way to temptations, potentially corrupting the holy character he is forming in us through prayer.  It’s a request that the Father keep us in this way he started, not turning to the left or the right of this salvation way being paved and furthered in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer frames the path of our own prayers.  It’s a formational journey for the soul, beginning with a wondrous visual of the sovereign Father, finding satisfaction in his infinite holiness, submitting to the redemptive reality he is establishing amongst us, trusting in his daily provision, resting in his graceful preservation, responding mercifully to others, and persevering in this walk upon his holy way.  As we pray our Lord’s words, they immerse our character into his, forming and navigating life upon his way.

Prayer as following Jesus | Matthew 6:5-8

Moving from giving to prayer, Jesus says “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”

Like giving, prayer played a pivotal part in Jewish piety. Prayer is not simply sacred conversation; it is spiritual formation. Prayer shapes in us the Father’s abiding presence. Prayer conforms our character to the righteousness of Christ. Prayer forms us into followers of Jesus. Prayer is the Potter’s means of molding for us his clay. As such, prayer has more to do with what God’s doing than what we’re saying. Through prayer he shapes in us his salvation substance; such artistry requires patient, Father-focused prayerfulness so his “will be done”.

So when some of God’s people started praying with a hidden agenda, making a public spectacle of prayer “that they may be seen by men”, Jesus calls them out as fakers, actors showing off for the praise and approval of people. It is a dangerous line to walk; Jesus said those compliments they were after are the only reward or esteem they should expect, from either man or God. Since they were not seeking God’s esteem, they should not expect it later. Praying for men’s pleasure replaces God with men as the potter who molds our soul. It’s worship of men, desiring to be shaped into their image. It’s a hijacking and twisting of holy conversation to engage in idolatry. Years of this kind of practice will leave us routinely sputtering hollow “christianisms” while inside we ache with bitterness, trying to get yet another cup of people’s pleasure to satiate a dry and dusty soul.

This is not the life of prayer Jesus envisions for his followers; so he lays out another way. “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

The average Jewish home was not separated into individual rooms, but was often one large room. Jesus is likely saying to pray as privately as possible in this situation; or his language may imaginatively suggest his followers withdraw to the most inner part of themselves, locking out spectators in order to privately parley in the Father’s presence. When the Father sees his holy estimation is solely sought, regarded more valuable than all others, he will reward us, or saturate our souls with his sanctifying presence.

Jesus further elaborates “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.”

The average Gentile, or non-Jew, had a plethora of gods or deities from which to choose. To incur their favor, they would entreat these god-figures by reciting a series of prayers. Hoping to charm them with these spell-like incantations, they would repeat various phrases associated with that deity until they felt they had done enough to earn their favor. Jesus uses this imagery to expose for his followers another way not to pray. He then qualifies his logic, saying “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

In his sovereignty God is already aware of our needs. We don’t need to relentlessly babble on as if God is deaf or we must earn his favor. He sees, he knows, and he cares. We need not be panicked and desperate for his acknowledgment. Being aware of his care brings blessed assurance, a restfulness rooted in his sovereign goodness. It affords us a spaciousness to open up to him and creates confidence in the genuineness of his character and concern.

The discipleship reality Jesus’ words cultivate here is a prayerfulness satisfied in the Father’s estimation and sovereignty. An endeavor unlike any other, prayer is our soul’s response to the redemption already at work in Christ. An expansion and maturation of the soul, prayer pulls us into that redemptive work, conforming us to Christ’s kingdom reality. As we continue this lifelong journey of following Jesus, holy conversation keeps us on and further along his way.

The voice of Saruman and the laughter of God

I went for a long walk the other day, partly for the exercise, but also because my prayers are more fluent when I’m walking.  I was feeling distressed, struggling with doubt and confusion.  While walking I prayed “Lord, I need you to cut through this fog.”

I then remembered my favorite moment from “The Lord of the Rings” book series.  In “The Two Towers”, the army of the traitorous white wizard Saruman is defeated and his own powers are waning.  The true white wizard Gandalf, Théoden, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli—leaders and warriors of Middle-Earth—approach Saruman’s great tower doors to finally manage him.  The doors open, Saruman appears, and he then attempts one last act of trickery.

He speaks to them sweetly of how his presumed injustices have been misunderstood, misconstrued, how Gandalf was meddling in their affairs, how peace was yet possible with his assistance.  As he slowly and craftily speaks, things seem less clear to many listening.  Perhaps Saruman’s atrocities were justifiable; possibly their war against Sauron was petty.  Maybe Gandalf had been manipulating them all along for his own ends.  The moment is treacherous and their minds are shadowed.

“Then Gandalf laughed.  The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”

Clouded and confused with sinister suspicions they knew not how to resist, the mirthy laughter of their powerful friend was all it took to remind the fellowship of what was real and true.  In the moments that followed, Saruman learns his bewitching voice has lost its harnessing power and he is no longer master of others, nor of himself.  Leaving him to his tragedy, the band of warriors depart his door to continue their mission to save Middle-Earth.

I remember tearing up the first time I read that chapter.  It resonated with my faith; I felt protected.  My heart glowed again recalling the scene while walking and praying for God’s hopeful clarity.

When King Saul haunted David’s steps, hunting him all the way to his home to kill him, David prayed for God’s deliverance from the unleashed dogs who voraciously hounded him.  Trying to clear from his mind their menacing arrogance, David prays “But You, O LORD, laugh at them; You scoff at all the nations.”

While Israel’s monarch breathes out violence, David turns his hope to Israel’s true King, whose sovereign designs hilariously overrule Saul’s petty plans.  We also can prayerfully perceive that hope.  When you feel darkness encroaching with devilish intent, it can help your heart to hope “He who is enthroned in the heavens laughs”.

When you are clouded with the disorienting and disrupting fog of fear, doubt, confusion, and chaos, may hope help you hear your Father’s mirthy, deep bellied and boisterous laughter.  It will echo through the valleys, dispel the daze, and light up the dark.  May it awaken you to what is real and grant you sight in light of what is true, that your Father is protecting you.