I heard an expression that “There are no atheists in foxholes”—meaning that when people are in trouble they call out to God, no matter who they are or what they do (or don’t) believe. A 2004 study revealed that 30% of atheists prayed “sometimes”!
My guess is that “Dear God, please help” is most uttered phrase around the globe.
I believe that Christian prayer makes a difference. And the more I pray, the more I know the words of Oswald Chambers to be true: “Prayer isn’t preparation for the work; it is the work.” Prayers speak louder than words. So how can we NOT pray?
Recently I went through the Bible and made category listings of what Jesus actually said and did most. (You can read that blog here.)
Prayer came up a lot. So I thought I’d zero in a bit.
I’m going to lay it out in point form-ish style, and I won’t repeat exact phrases that appear more than once. Then I’ll bring it together at the end:
“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you might be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44)
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:5)
“when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)
“This… is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13; see also Luke 11:2-4)
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22)
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25).
“pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).
In Luke 18:1 Jesus tells a story about an oblivious judge and a persistent widow “to show them that they should pray and not give up” because God will “bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night…”
“And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14).
“I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16).
Speaking to his disciples Jesus says: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:24).
Here are some more patterns to flag:
Jesus prays for his disciples (John 17:9): that they are protected; that they are united (i.e. “that they may be one”, John 17:11); that they may have the “full measure of my joy within them” (John 17:13); and that they are made holy “by the truth” (John 17:17).
He also prays for all “who will believe in me” through the disciples’ message, “that all of them may be one”; and that people will believe that the Father is the one who sent Jesus (John 17:20-21).
Jesus warns against using the temple as a “den of robbers” and that it should be a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13).
He tells the disciples to pray so that they “will not fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).
Before his crucifixion he asks his Father if it’s possible for the cup (task) before him be taken away, but ends up praying for “your will be done” (Matthew 26:42), meaning God’s will is paramount.
Jesus often goes off to pray by himself (sometimes through the night), and this gives him focus and strength for a special task before him (see, for example, Mark 1:35-39).
Plus, some exorcism can only be successful through prayer (see Mark 9:25-29).
So what does it all mean?
Here’s what I think:
- You pray because it’s how you talk to God.
- You pray because Jesus teaches you how.
- You pray because God’s plan for you is better for you than your plan for you.
- You pray using the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer (which outlines God’s agenda for the world and your life).
- You pray, as a habit, alone. (Although praying with others is good too.)
- You pray sincerely and directly.
- You pray for your enemies.
- You pray in faith. (It is not based on magic but real trust in God.)
- You pray confident for an answer.
- You pray for forgiveness after you have already asked for the forgiveness of others.
- You pray to not fall into temptation.
- You pray for focus and strength for God’s tasks before you.
- You pray for perseverance.
- You pray in Jesus’ name.
- You pray boldly.
- You pray for God’s will.
Imagine your life if you prayed like that!
And you should be buoyed by the fact that Jesus prayed for his followers to be united, and that we would be filled with his joy.
So often we treat prayer like a last resort. But what if prayer was a first resort? I think we’d be better able to sweep away the blurrying distractions of a bustling life and more focused on the meaningful work of “thy kingdom come.”
A wise friend told me something he had overheard: “The task is to become child-like without becoming child-ish.” Isn’t that beautiful? It’s surely a commentary on Jesus’ words: “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Becoming child-like is not about being naive. A child lives in the now, is able to accept a gift, delights in wonder, is obviously imperfect, and is totally dependent on another to survive. Sounds like prayer.
Turns out humans do have wings—they’re called knees. But don’t take it from me–I’m just a guy with blue shoes. Take it from Jesus.