If prayer is really so amazing and so important, the Bible ought to give us some clear guidance on how do it, right? What kinds of prayers is God most likely to favor? Are there magical words that we should always use? Is there a particular time of day when traffic is light and God is more likely to hear us? Why doesn’t God write a blog, “Five Ways to Get All Your Prayers Answered?” A list would be nice, wouldn’t it?
As you have probably noticed, there aren’t very many “How To” Lists in the Bible. God prefers to use stories and images to convey truth across many different generations. In fact, when you stop looking for lists and start looking at stories, there’s a lot of guidance regarding effective prayer. For example:
- God favors prayers that align us with him. In Luke 18:14, two men pray, but the less religious fellow is answered. He is a tax collector, so convicted of his own sin that he falls on the floor saying over and over again, “Lord, have mercy on me, The Sinner.” God wants to show mercy to everyone, and he highly esteems humility.
- The Lord looks with favor on the prayers of people who are convinced he can do anything. The message of James 1:6 is that people who call upon God should be absolutely convinced he is capable. You don’t have to wonder how much confidence you place in God’s abilities: just evaluate your own prayer life. If I don’t pray very often, I clearly don’t have much confidence in God’s power: he is just a last resort.
- Our heavenly father answers prayers that never give up. Remember the story of the widow in Luke 18: 2 – 8? She seeks justice from a corrupt judge who couldn’t care less, but she finally gets her wish when she goes back again and again. Christ explains that if persistence can even influence a corrupt and uncaring judge, how much more will it influence a loving heavenly father? A lot of answers apparently get left on the table by people who walk away too soon.
- Prayers that advance God’s purposes always carry more weight. Whenever Jesus directs us to pray in his name, (John 16:26) that phrase means the same thing to Christ that it denotes in our world today. When you do something in the name of another person, you are doing it under that person’s authority in order to fulfill that other person’s desires. You are literally taking care of his business the way he would like it done. When we pray in the name of Jesus, we are confessing our desire to do his work his way, and are asking for his help in fulfilling the desires of His Heart.
- God favors prayers offered from a heart of faith. James 5:15 confirms that. But Hebrews 11:6 makes it clear that New Testament faith is less about optimism and more about being convinced that God rewards those who seek him. God answers our prayers when he is the object of our affections; when the things we request are all incidental to our desire for his presence.
The Bible compares God to a father, not a vending machine. Vending machines have only one purpose: dispensing things customers want. Fathers care more about growing their families strong and protecting them; far less about giving kids everything they ask for at Christmas and birthdays.
One of the last prayers Jesus Christ prayed on earth was not answered. He asked for God to take away the cup of death and spare him the agony of the cross. Then he added, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours.” He didn’t escape the cross, but he did get something far better: the will of God and the pleasure of His Father. That’s always best whether it was on my wish list or not. It satisfies. It transforms.
Next time: what should we think about Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail for refusing to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples. What can we learn? How should we pray? That question has come up several times this weekend, so I’ll offer you a scriptural principle that applies here the next time we’re together.
Lift up the Cross!