“Oh, I’ll pray for you”
It’s the tried and true response of Christians to every sort of situation, from the most hopeless to the most trivial. But what is prayer? A divine parachute? The “I-know-a-Guy” of the spiritual realm? And how do we pray? Formulaic soliloquy? Rambling conversation? On our knees? For such a bedrock point in our Christian life, the Bible says very little about how we should pray, and what we should pray for. I would like to consider three discussions of prayer in the New Testament: Peter, Paul, and the Lord Jesus.
Peter gives us perhaps the most famous description of prayer: “Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, ESV). This is the definition of prayer most Christians are familiar with. Tell God what is wrong with you. Tell Him what you need, what worries you, what makes you anxious. Even “cast” it on Him, throw it, let go of it.
Interestingly, Peter does not tell us what the Lord will do with our anxiety after we cast it on Him. Often I have the concept that I will no longer be anxious because Jesus is going to fix all the sources of anxiety, and probably in the way I think they should be fixed. That is simply not the case. We are to be released from anxiety because the Lord cares for us. That should be sufficient.
Paul echoes this idea in Philippians 4: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7, ESV). Again, the reason we are not anxious about anything is based on God, not on our situation. Rather than a solution to our problem, God gives Himself.
But Paul goes further on prayer. Not only should we pray for our outward condition, but also our inward spiritual state. In Ephesians Paul prays twice for the believers as they read his epistle. In chapter 1 he asks on our behalf “… that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him… that the eyes of your heart being enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (1:18-19 NASB).
As Paul begins his master class on the nature and character of the church, God’s handiwork, God’s house, Christ’s Body and Bride, he prays for us, that we would have a proper spirit to see what God is speaking in all of its depth. The object of prayer has turned from the situation around us, the circumstances that we encounter to ourselves in our interaction with God. This is no “light” prayer; it is a prayer of someone who realizes their desperate need: not of a new job or a better place to live, but of God Himself.
Ephesians reaches its height in chapter 3. Again Paul prays for us:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14, 16-19, NASB).
This prayer strikes at the core of God’s interaction with man. That Christ may dwell in your hearts. That you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. These phrases are awe-inspiring, just to read, much less pray. What higher thing is there in the breadth of human experience than to be filled with God? Yet there is at least one higher prayer recorded in the Bible. “Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:9-13, NASB).
The Lord here is teaching His disciples how to pray, in what has become known as “the Lord’s Prayer.” And if we can step back from the rote memorization of those words and consider how the Lord prays, the structure, the order, and the direction, we will see that this is even higher than Ephesians 3. He prays first that the Father’s name be sanctified, glorified, and that His kingdom would come, that God would be sovereign not only in heaven but also on the earth. Then He prays for necessities, and concludes again with God’s kingdom, power and glory.
If Ephesians 3 touched the core of God’s interaction with man, this prayer touches the core of God’s heart. From the beginning God had this desire: to have an expression, a glorification of Himself (Ephesians 3:10), and to have His will and authority carried out (Ephesians 1:21-22). To that end He created a man in His image and likeness, and with His dominion (Genesis 1:26). How Jesus prays, as a man on earth in subjection to God the Father, is a perfect model for us. It takes God’s goal as the goal of the prayer.
Does this mean that prayer for things is wrong, or inferior? Of course not, the Bible exists in harmony with itself. Is it wrong to desire to be a man through whom God can be expressed, who can be filled to all the fullness of God? Absolutely not! That is why you were created. We need to pray about the things pressing upon us, as Peter exhorts us. We should cast everything at the Lord’s feet, so that He can flood us with peace, peace that transcends all understanding. And from that foundation of peace, we should go on to pray that God would open our eyes, that we would see something of His heart, beyond our own poor condition.
We should pray that God would make people who are filled with Him, people in whom Christ can make His home. And after that kind of prayer we can be properly positioned to pray according to God’s own heart.
“God, I don’t care about myself. I don’t care if it’s not through me. I want Your name to be glorified. I want You to be free to do whatever You want, on earth just as You do in heaven. If You want to do it through me, praise You. If not, also praise You.”
That kind of prayer takes experience with the Lord. It takes a deep trust in who He is, and a deep seeing and knowing of His heart. You just can’t pray that way if your mind is gripped with fear about a health issue. You can’t even pray that while you still want to be the instrument of God’s glory. It is not wrong to want those things. It is human. There is always a progression with prayer.
Pray honestly. Pray where you are. If what consumes you is the exam you have next week, pray about the exam you have next week. Tell Jesus that you are deathly afraid that you’ll fail. He loves to hear you. If you don’t know where you are with prayer, what stage you are in, if you’re even in a stage, go to Him and say that. “Lord I’m lost and I just read this really long blog post and now I’m confused. Show me real prayer. I need you Lord.” He love to hear from you. The most important thing with prayer is to pray.