I wonder what you think when you hear the word ‘prayer’? Maybe you think of something you were taught to do as a child, probably at bedtime, but haven’t really thought about since. Maybe you think of something unfamiliar, a bit formal, a bit alien. Maybe you think of something that has helped you in hard times in your life – when you were waiting for important news, or facing a big decision. Maybe you think of something that you know happens in church, but surely isn’t that relevant to the rest of life. Maybe you think of something that’s foundational in your life, something that’s a regular practice that you couldn’t do without.
For me, prayer is something as fundamental as breathing. It’s a core part of who I am. But that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s something I always find easy.
William James has said that ‘The reason we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.’
I think at the end of the day that’s what it boils down to. We pray because we can’t help it. We are hard wired to pray. It’s how we are made.
Time and time again there have been surveys done where people have admitted that at really difficult times, like when there’s a phone call from the hospital, or a policeman turns up on the doorstep, or their child is lost – people pray.
And I don’t just mean Christians. I mean those people who for the rest of their lives would swear they don’t believe in God – suddenly, when the chips are down, when it really matters, they pray.
I want to share briefly 5 reasons why I think it’s a great idea to pray.
Reason number 1 – it’s a great idea to pray because Jesus prayed. There are loads of times in the Bible when we read about Jesus praying.
He went away by himself to a quiet place to pray. He prayed alone and in company, for himself and for others. He asked his friends to sit with him while he prayed in Gethsemane before his crucifixion. He prayed as he hung on the cross. Prayer was part of who Jesus was. It was his heartbeat.
Reason number 2 – it’s a great idea to pray because Jesus told us to pray. Jesus modelled prayer and he expected that we would follow his example of prayer. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus taught his disciples a model of prayer which has been used ever since – the Lord’s Prayer. He didn’t say, ‘If you pray…’ but ‘When you pray…’ He assumed that they, and we, would do this.
The rest of the Bible also teaches us that we should pray. Paul’s letters are full of instructions on prayer. He tells his readers to ‘pray continually’, to ‘pray at all times’, to ‘pray for each other’, to be ‘faithful in prayer’, to ‘devote [our]selves to prayer’, to ‘always keep on praying’. The Bible tells us very clearly that it is important for us to pray.
Reason number 3 – it’s a great idea to pray because prayer works! When we pray, things happen. Circumstances are changed, people are healed, relationships are restored. Things happen when we pray that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t prayed. You may be able to think of times when you’ve prayed and there’s been a clear and obvious answer to that prayer.
To be clear, I know that there are times when we pray for something and it doesn’t happen, even though it may be something that God must also want, such as for someone to be healed, or for war to end. I don’t know why that is.
Sometimes it’s because the thing we have prayed for isn’t actually the best thing which could happen, because it’s prayed for the wrong motives, or would harm someone else, or just isn’t in line with God’s bigger purpose and plan, which we can’t see. Sometimes our prayer is answered, but it’s not answered in the way that we’d wanted or hoped that it would be.
And sometimes we simply have to acknowledge that the world in which we live is not perfect; far from it. There is sin and disease and evil. And so all is not as it should be.
We should realise too that Jesus prayed prayers which weren’t answered – in Gethsemane Jesus asked God to take away the cup that he had to drink, and that did not happen, and so Jesus re-committed himself to doing whatever God’s will was.
But nevertheless, accepting all this, we must continue to pray. Prayer is powerful and effective and world-changing. It has been said that ‘the greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.’
Reason number 4 – it’s a great idea to pray because prayer brings us into a closer relationship with God.
Who are your very best friends? Who are the people you’re closest to, the ones you turn to when you need them, who are always there for you? How often do you speak to them? I doubt you have a really close friend who you only speak to once a year. Because to make a relationship work, we need to communicate. We need to speak to the other person, to be in touch, to share our news, to just be with them and hang out. And it’s the same with God.
Prayer is simply conversation with God. That’s all. It’s about us telling him what’s going on in our lives, what we’re grateful for, what we’re worried about, what we’re scared of, what we want, what we’re hoping for. And it’s about us listening to see what he wants to say to us. Like any conversation, prayer is two-way – both people involved should get to speak!
Prayer is what happens when we delight in the relationship that we have with God. Richard Foster describes prayer like this – ‘prayer is where the heart finds its home.’
Reason number 5 – it’s a great idea to pray because prayer leads to us being transformed. And when it comes down to it, this is by far the most important reason.
Philip Yancey has written a fantastic book simply called Prayer. One of the many great things he writes is this, “The real value of persistent prayer is not so much that we get what we want as that we become the person we should.”
The most important reason for us to pray is not for us to get things from God, or even to grow in our relationship with God and experience him. The most important reason for us to pray is that in doing so we will be transformed so that we will know and do the will of God.
The value of our prayer is not in whether God feels close by or far away, since there will be times when both seem true; or in whether prayer comes easily to us or not, since again there will be times when both happen. But the real value of prayer comes when, through it all, we are changed. When that happens, as we pray, the more we pray, we will begin to see the world as God sees it, to weep at the things he weeps at, to act where he would act and to speak where he would speak.
Prayer is the place where we are transformed into the people that God made us to be.
So, if prayer really is important – how do we actually do it? Because it’s one thing to believe and know how important and worthwhile prayer is, but it’s quite another to sit down and get on with it.
When I try to pray, I quite often find that instead my head is full of all the things I need to write on my shopping list, what I’m going to cook for my tea, whether or not I switched the iron off, the 3 people I promised I’d ring today, the plot of last night’s TV – in fact just about anything except what I want it to be full of!
Mother Teresa said ‘If you want to pray better you must pray more.’ That’s a good place to start, because the way to pray is, well, to pray.
If you can talk, you can pray. The trick is to be quiet sometimes too of course, to let God get a word in edgeways…
But it really is as simple as that. You don’t need fancy words to pray, you don’t need to sit down for hours and come up with a big long speech. You just need to spend some time with God and tell him what you’re thinking and feeling. And you can do it any time and any where – you can pray while you’re in the shower, or doing the washing up, or walking the dog, or driving the car, or cooking the tea.
The Lord’s Prayer can be a way of helping us to pray, as can other prayers in books, since it can be helpful when we can’t think what to say to use prayers which other people have written down for us.
Another thing I find helpful is to have different things around me which help me to pray, and help keep my mind focused on the job.
So my advice is this – TRY PRAYING and then KEEP PRAYING. Don’t give up. And if you have given up, try again. Keep talking to God. Keep listening to him. And you never know what might happen!