Over the past three years or so, God has been challenging me on my perspective of prayer. It really began when Jake was in Korea, and he mentioned how God answered his prayer to have an active Christian in every battalion at his post there, and I thought, “Well, if God can do that for Jake, then what can He do for me?” It was then I started really sinking my teeth into disciplining my prayer life, believing that certain things in God’s kingdom are designed to be moved by my prayers.
That was the beginning. Since then, I’ve been further challenged to use my prayers to open up avenues through which God desires to do “heart work” in the lives of people who are hurting and shattered, whose depths of pain I am unable to reach by mere methods, empathy, and whatever wisdom I might possess.
The next phase, however, was God checking my own heart with this thought: I cannot truly love others unless I’m praying for them. I don’t simply mean that they will be instilled with feelings of love if I pray for them, or that the discipline of prayer in and of itself will be a form of loving them. I mean that God had been changing my own heart and internal state and perspective of people in general so that I am loving them out of an actual love for them, instead of an external, superficial love.
Why am I talking about this?
Recently, I was able to have the experience of speaking about prayer at one of our monthly ladies’ nights, and so I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What I discovered and concluded as I prepared for this talk, is that God intends prayer to bring about change…This might seem really basic, but it was a big deal for me.
Before I talk about that, however, I realized something about myself during this whole prep period: I know absolutely nothing. The more I learn about God, the less I know about Him. I know that I’ve “realized” this several times, but I’m seeing that I actually have levels of ignorance through which I’m progressing the more I seek to follow Christ.
God’s Perspective of Prayer
The first thing I wanted to establish and figure out when preparing this talk is how does God actually see prayer? The answer seemed to pop up in at least two places.
“Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned to them and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)
I think Jesus rebukes James and John so strongly here because He knows the power of prayer and the authority given through prayer to those who follow Him. He knows that if His disciples faithfully pray, as a child would, for fire to come down from heaven and destroy the Samaritan city, then it’ll happen! But, ‘The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’ So Jesus rebukes James and John, who do ‘not know what manner of spirit [they] are of,’ (they don’t know their own strength or what they’re designed to do for the Kingdom of God), and He refines their understanding of God’s vision for the world before moving on.
The second place God’s perspective on prayer pops up pretty clearly is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, where it seems that prayer, among other things, is part of God’s will for us as believers. He desires and demands that we pray as His children.
So, God has instilled authority and power in faithful prayer, He has designed this to be part of His will for those who follow Him, and desires that change be brought about by the prayers of the saints…But what does this look like? What specific kinds of change did He intend to be brought about by prayer? I think there’s at least three.
Change in Our Relationship With Him
This kind of change feels kind of basic…In order to have any kind of relationship with anyone, you need to talk to them, you know? I can’t really know Jake—his thoughts, feelings, desires, hopes, dreams, fears, values, convictions, past, etc.—unless I talk with him about these things. I can draw implications and assumptions from his actions, sure, but that’s only gathering evidence of what I think he thinks. To get his actual thoughts, I need to talk to him. The same thing applies to God. Our relationship with God involves both prayer (talking to God and being vulnerable with Him and opening ourselves up to Him) and reading the Word (God talking to us and sharing His heart), all of it brought to life and made meaningful and applicable by the movement and person of the Holy Spirit.
We see this showing up in at least two places in Scripture: We’ve got John 15:5-8, and Psalm 62:8. John 15:7, in particular, says “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.” But the verses around it speak of staying attached to Jesus and treating Him as our life source, like a branch is attached to a vine, our ultimate purpose being to bear fruit and prove ourselves His disciples. So it seems that prayer is part of that sweet experience of abiding in Christ, walking with Him, having an intimate, obedience-driven, sincerity-of-heart-empowered relationship.
Another aspect of that relationship is the freedom with which we can come to God with our hearts. Timothy Keller has a wonderful quote about this:
“The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 AM for a glass of water is a child. We have that kind of access.”
We see this in Psalm 62:8, which asks followers of God to “pour your hearts out to Him; trust in Him at all times.” Be vulnerable with Him; He knows all about you anyway. He wants you to come to Him and talk with Him, let Him in on your hurts, your loves, your fears, your agony…He wants to deepen your relationship with Him to bring you into a place of greater freedom secured by grace and truth (John 1:17, John 8:31-32)
Change in How We See the World and How We See Others
It was Wednesday morning. I sat at the dining room table, my Bible open before me, my head in my hands. This was three days before I was supposed to give the talk I mentioned at the beginning of this post. While I’d been preparing for weeks, and, as I’ve mentioned, God had been faithfully teaching me new things about prayer beforehand, I came to a moment of sheer panic of getting it all wrong.
“Lord…What am I even supposed to say? What if everything I’ve learned about prayer thus far is actually wrong and will totally misrepresent You? Lord…I don’t know anything. It’d be easy (ha!) if I were sharing my testimony or something…I can’t get that wrong, right? But, Lord, what do You want them to know about prayer? What is the most important for them to understand about praying to You, Lord?”
“I will stand watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected.” (Habakkuk 2:1)
It was then that I remembered the crux of what God had been cultivating in my heart since the beginning of last year, since only a few months before Jake deployed:
“‘But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
Right…Prayer changes us, has changed me…I cannot continue hating or judging someone—no matter how they’ve used or abused me—when I’m consistently praying for them…This was that “final” phase mentioned earlier in this post, the phase after seeing that God could do “heart work” in others that I couldn’t. My understanding of prayer moved from distant (God can do things for me) to very, very close (God changes me).
“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.” —Richard Foster
I tend to be drawn to people who are deeply shattered, and who require much consistent time, care, and grace, most of which I wouldn’t have without Jesus, and have to reach for in Him to have them at all. The only reason, however, God has enabled be to not get burnt out by the people He wants to heal through me, is by praying for them, lifting the burdens they pour out to me up to Him so that He can give me the rest I need when I am rightly wearied and burdened for them. And praying for them protects me from resenting them, from pulling the whole “Woe is me, I’m such a martyr” even though they’re the ones who are suffering while I am not. Praying for them and lifting their hurt up to God instead of depending on myself to carry it preserves my perspective of them and keeps it line with that of Jesus Christ, and, if I do it right, even improves and shapes it to look more and more like His.
Another aspect of this appears in Philippians 4:6-7, which says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” There’s a supernatural, spiritual exchange going on in this passage: through prayer, petition, with thanksgiving, I am giving up anxiety to take on peace. I think this exchange can happen with anything I feel that is not of God, trading those things of the flesh for the things of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Change in External Circumstances and in Others Outside of Ourselves
I feel like this is the aspect of prayer with which everybody is most familiar. It’s like the beginning lines of that Laura Story song Blessings
“We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering.”
There’s different ways this shows up. In my life, it’s shown up primarily as intercession, though it’s been changing and evolving the more I learn about what it means to disciple others.
There’s a passage, Ezekiel 22:30-31, that speaks of the importance of interceding on behalf of those who cannot pray for themselves:
“‘So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land (sinful Israel), that I should not destroy it; but I found no one. Therefore I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; and I have recompensed their deeds on their own heads,’ says the Lord God.”
This seems pretty bleak…And yet the implication is really exciting: God would not have “poured out [His] indignation on them” if He’d found a faithful man standing in the gap on behalf of the land. Similarly, I think God has given us a responsibility as believers to be priests to a broken world, to call down mercy on behalf of those who deserve violent judgment, as we would deserve if not for God drawing us to Himself. These people could be: believers who are willingly living in sin, those trapped by the claws of addiction, unbelievers in general, believers experiencing deep suffering, people blinded by the weight of depression or the heightened fear of anxiety…The list goes on. If you are a follower of Christ, you are able and are called to be “priests to the world,” and pray for those who don’t understand God’s grace to become aware of His mercy.
A crazy thought came out of this for me: The unchangeable God has created a system of Christianity in which we can affect His decisions through obedient and faith-filled prayer…He’s allowed there to be room in the carrying out of His unthwartable will for us to change it through prayer. How does that even work? How does God do that? Mind. Blown.
The idea of intercession, I think, is closely related to the idea communicated by James 5:16, which says “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” This is that spiritual healing that can only come through the confession of sin and the prayers of other believers. I’ve experienced this in my own life through my awesome, epically cool, spiritual giant of a sister, Grace, and through confessing some sins and wrong perspectives to Jake and Hannah and having them pray for me, though at the time I didn’t think that prayer would be the answer. I think this is where the spiritual practice of “healing prayer” comes from.
A final way I think this happens is in that process of discipleship, where you’re desiring the “perfecting and completion” of another person. What I’m thinking of comes from Colossians 4:2-4, 12, and Ephesians 6:18-19. Colossians 4:12 in particular says, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” Link this with Colossians 1:28-29, and you have a way in which we can “[labor] fervently” in discipleship, in “warning…and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ…” This is another element of “heart work.” Not only are we praying for spiritual healing, but we’re praying for spiritual transformation in the lives of the men and women into whom we’re pouring our time, energy, resources, and spiritual disciplines for the sake of the Kingdom, walking in obedience to Jesus and His commissioning of us (Mt. 28:18-20).
The End of the Spaghetti Noodle
Needless to say, I’m still learning a lot about prayer…Like, I’m not sure where God’s unthwartable will for the lives of men meets/opposes the God-given authority of my prayers…Exactly how much am I able to affect God’s will? How much room has He given me in prayer? Is there a way to pray ineffectively?
Just yesterday, I was reading Kayla Aimee’s testimony written out in her book In Bloom, and it led me to a desperate, crying prayer for both Jake and the baby presently growing in my womb. Desperate and crying because I was convicted about how little I’d been praying for my husband and our child. I felt like I’d shirked a responsibility that comes with the role of being the lady of our family. Again, just showing I’m still learning about prayer and how to apply it: God teaches me lessons multiple times, with more grace.
With this, I have yet to leave a solid time of prayer without peace, fulfillment, and refocus, without being further established in truth and grace, and without being challenged in my own perspective of the world.
Pray long, and pray often, my friends. And expect God to meet you there.
“‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.'” (John 15:5-8)