Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Prayer: What's the Point?

      Whenever I think of prayer, I am reminded of the first paragraph of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", etc, etc. That may sound like a strange thing to think of prayer, but to me, prayer is as paradoxical as Dickens' description of The French Revolution. We are encouraged to pray, to petition God for such and such thing, for this aid or that miracle, yet there is never any guarantee that we will receive what we pray for (and even when we do receive that for which we prayed so earnestly, it is very often in unexpected times and by unexpected means). We are told that God has a plan, a great, all-encompassing plan, yet we are taught to pray that this circumstance or that situation be changed (and very rarely are we concerned with knowing God's plan when we ask for this exercise of His sovereign power over our lives).
        I hope I am not misunderstood; I am not attacking prayer. I am simply expressing my own struggles and frustrations in prayer.I will readily admit that I am not an expert on this holy and spiritual discipline of the Christian of faith. I must confess that I spend far less time in prayer than I wish. I certainly do not "pray without ceasing" as the apostle Paul enjoined, but I have spent some time in this supernatural exercise, and I must say, it is very difficult. I have heard many men and women much godlier than myself speak of the sweetness of prayer, of the power of prayer, of the glories of prayer, yet in my own life I have found prayer to be a chore, an exercise in self control and focus, and so the beauty of communion with Christ is lost in the frustration of trying not to think about all the things that interest me so much.
         On top of the exhausting nature of all of my self effort, there is the discouragement of unanswered petition, the frustration of not receiving that for which I have prayed for with such strong emotion and faith. I hope I am not the only person who has become angry with God when I have asked for something very important to me only to be met with (seemingly) stony silence. Unanswered prayer has produced many a temper tantrum in my dealings with God. To my shame, I have often behaved like a spoiled child when God did not give me what I wanted, and yet, also like a child, as soon as the next crisis arose, I was running to the Lord to fix it (never mind that 9 out of every 10 crises are the direct result of my own actions).
         I recently realized that the majority of my problems with prayer comes from unrealistic and unbiblical demands and expectations. I have prayed thinking that, as a "child of God", I should expect every petition I bring to be met with a positive answer. There has been far too little reverential fear in my prayers, and, considering that so many people become bitter over unanswered prayer, I am willing to wager that I am not the only Christian who has prayed arrogantly instead of humbly. By definition, to petition is to ask, and yet I treated it as though it meant demand, and when my petulant demands were not met, I became angry and resentful, and accused God of not caring about me, or of wanting to hurt me, when in fact, He cared too much to give me what I demanded. If He were to give me everything I have demanded, I would only have become more confident in my arrogance (not to mention most of what I ask for is not what is best for me). What's more, I was not simply making demands of my heavenly Father (which I would not even do to my earthly father), I was making demands of the King of Kings. It is His prerogative to grant gifts to whom He will and to deny whom He will. Arrogance is not boldness. Boldness comes from knowing that I am a favourite of the king. Arrogance says my every demand is actually my right, that I deserve to receive what I ask for because I have done so much or given so much or endured so much. Arrogance is the mark of a pretentious fool who believes his ultimately insignificant efforts and struggles place a debt on God. God is not a genie, and prayers are not wishes He is obligated to grant. Prayer is a privilege, an audience with a mighty King, and should be entered into with a certain level of gravity and trepidation, as well as (paradoxically) comfort and trust, for God is both our King and our Father.
        These are obviously nothing more than my own experiences, but I have learned a great deal through them. The point of prayer is not an affirmative answer, nor is it to see the power of God over our situations; in my opinion, prayer is more akin to spending quality time with one's earthly father. Spending quality time with one's father involves getting to know one another, it involves learning from him, it involves him imparting the wisdom of his own experience as well as the wisdom of all the generations before him. Quality time is an expression of love, not a chore to be gotten out of the way. I must confess that this is all somewhat foreign to me. My father and I, though I love him dearly and we are unbelievably similar in many ways, are not very close, and as a result quality time is somewhat difficult. Our points of commonality are under the surface, while outwardly our interests are divergent. Naturally, this affects my relationship with God, especially in prayer. The concept of spending quality time with a "father figure" eludes me. I simply don't know how to "just talk" to God, or to wait in His presence for Him to talk to me. My time spent with God is about solving issues in my heart, or asking for this or that thing, or confessing my seemingly endless  list of failures. I do not simply talk about what is on my mind, nor do I sit and let Him talk, and I have recently come to believe that I  am doing myself a disservice.
         The essence of Christianity is communion, beginning upward to God and then outward to people. Trying to skip the first step, as I have been doing, leads to frustration, discouragement and spiritual impotence. I am unable to grow spiritually or impact the lives of others for God because I do not know Him. I have not given Him the opportunity to reveal Himself to me, to tell me who He is. I take it for granted that my extensive biblical knowledge and my experiences as a person and as a Christian show me all I need to know. That is absurd; I cannot even know a fellow human being using that method, so how could I know God by those means?
         So, as I asked in the title of this essay, what is the point of prayer? If you haven't already figured it out, let me tell you: relationship. Communion. Friendship. Love. Any one of these words could be used to sum up why we ought to pray.God wants us to know Him; our evolution as Christians is entirely dependent on how well we know Him. He wants us to pray because He created us for the purpose of friendship, so that He could commune with us and tell us about Himself and so we could share our own distinct personalities with Him. He wanted children to nurture and love. That is why we ought to "pray and not to faint" (Luke 18:1). He wants us to assure that He hears us and will avenge us of all our suffering some day, as well as to show us His glory and His love. He wants us to converse with Him because He is a person, and He loves us. He wants us to know that His love for us is infinite and immutable. That is the point.