Monday, 2 February 2015

How does prayer work?

Hear the sermon by clicking the link to the right


We are continuing our sermon series on big questions. This week we are dealing with the topic of prayer. This is the question someone submitted- 
“Does the number of people praying for something make a difference to God? If one person prays for a cause or one million pray for it, isn't it quality over quantity?”
 It’s an interesting question. If it doesn’t matter to God that many people pray for a matter then why ask our friends and our church to pray? If it is quality over quantity then should we only ask the most saintly people to pray? … The larger question behind this question is how does prayer work? And what is the most effective methods of prayer? And the question behind that is, why is prayer sometimes not answered?

First, it might be helpful just to talk about what prayer is.  Prayer is something people do all over the world. Anywhere you go in the world you will find people praying- in a variety of ways and as members of a variety of religions. All through the Bible there are examples of human beings praying to God and even having conversations with God. We see prayer modeled especially in the life of Jesus. Biblically, prayer is communication with God. Some would call it seeking union with God. Other would simply call it being with God and enjoying His presence.  Prayer has to do with a relationship with God.
Famous Christians have described it in various ways for example: Clement of Alexandria said prayer is “dialogue with God”. Augustine of Hippo said it is “raising of the mind and heart to God”. John Chrysostom said prayer is an “altar to God in your mind”. Theresa of Avila said prayer is a “special friendship”.   Richard Rohr has said it is a “way of living in awareness of the presence”. James Houston said it is a “homesickness for God”. (Mentioned by Charles Nienkirchen in an article titled "Prayer", in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality
Prayer is where we meet with God and are transformed. It is where we bring our lives to God, not as we wish they were, but as they are with all our pain, passion, and problems. Prayer is a part of our life before God, the goal of which is to love and serve God and to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ. Prayer helps to make us holy by transforming our character- our will, desires, motives, and behaviors.     
People also pray in a variety of different ways. Some speak out loud; some are quiet. Some stand with their hands in the air; some kneel. Some use prayer books and written prayers; and some speak spontaneously. Some find it easier to pray in the evening; some in the morning; some pray all through the day and they keep a quiet discussion with God.
We should emphasize that this is about relationship, not magic.  We sometimes treat prayer as if it is magic. We maybe think of it as a way to manipulate God to get what we want and so we look for techniques and tips to make sure our will gets done. Really that is magic and sorcery, rather than prayer.
Prayer is about a relationship with God. It is like my relationship with my sons. Jesus’ primary way of referring to God is “Father” or in the original Aramaic “Abba”. Which means something like “Pappa” or “Daddy”. It was one of the first words a child learned. It is what a child yells when they run towards their father to get picked up. Jesus gives the image of “Abba” as we approach God in prayer.  So the analogy of the relationship between me and my sons is not a bad one. … I hope that my sons are not primarily concerned with manipulating me to get me to give them candy or buy them toys. Though no doubt toys and candy pass through their minds from time to time. I hope that they are more concerned with us being together because we love each other. That doesn’t mean they should never ask me for anything. It just means that the asking is embedded in a relationship. The relationship with my sons is not primarily about them asking me for things, but that is a normal part of a parent-child relationship.
When my sons make a request of me I can respond in one of three ways. I can say “yes”, “no”, “or “not now”.   
If I say “yes” then that means that my son has asked me within the realm of my will. If I tell my boys to go play outside in the back yard they could be doing a variety of things and still be “in my will”. Being “in my will” doesn’t mean I have defined exactly which game they play and how they play it. There is a range of things they could be doing. They also know that I don’t want them to hurt each other and start throwing punches at each other’s noses. I also don’t want them to do anything dangerous that could lead to them getting seriously hurt. So there is a range of things that they could be doing and still be in my will if I tell them to go in the back yard and play.[1] I think this is similar to how God works. I think we can be doing a number of things and still be in the range of God’s will.

If my sons ask me for ice cream. I might say “yes” if it is in the realm of my will, which means that it fits into the overall context of my will for them.   
There are times when God does say “yes” to a request in prayer. When we ask “in Jesus’ name” what we are doing is we are asking as Jesus’ disciples, who have learned to live with his desires becoming our desires and his life living within us. Praying in the name of Jesus means having a sense of God’s will and what God wants to happen in the world. It is about praying according to our place in God’s story. Amazingly, God has chosen to work through prayer. We have been given the privilege and opportunity to cooperate with God through prayer. I’m sure we have very little understanding of the power of our prayer in effecting the world.
We have amazing examples of prayer in the Bible where it seems like God is persuaded to change His mind. We might think of Moses pleading with God after the rescued Hebrew slaves bow down to a golden calf and God is ready to give up on them. Amazingly, God allows Moses to seemingly alter his decisions. At times God even allows humans to have their way even though He doesn’t think it is best, for example, when the people of Israel pray for a king (1 Sam 8).  In the bible there is a tension between a God who is the far and away creator of the universe (transcendent), but also the one who comes to visit and speak with individual human beings like Abraham and Moses (immanent). In prayer it is important to hold both these images in tension. We should at times pray as if we can persuade God, but we also need to remember that God has a much broader and loving vision than us. 
We must also remember that prayer doesn’t eliminate our need to act. There is an Old Testament professor named Bruce Waltke who recalls playing David and Goliath with his daughter. He would be Goliath and she would be David. She would have a paper ball in her hand and she would yell “I come to you in the power of God” and throw her paper ball and he would topple over. If she didn’t yell “I come to you in the power of God” he wouldn’t topple over because she didn’t rely on God. But, he also wouldn’t topple over if she didn’t throw the paper ball. Prayer often works with and through human action.

I might also say “no” to my sons request for ice cream. If, for example, we are close to the time we will be eating supper. I don’t want them to spoil their appetite so I’ll say “no”. I will deny them this not because I don’t want them to have good things, but because I want better things for them. Having a healthy diet is more important than having a treat. I also know that too much ice cream can sometimes cause a stomach ache, or can become unhealthy. So while my sons might see my saying “no” as being mean, the reason I say “no” is because I want something better for them, or want to prevent future pain they can’t see. 
Similarly, God might say “no” in response to our requests in prayer. We might be denied certain requests because there might be effects on our soul, or on the souls of others, that would be undesirable. For example, if I prayed for a billion dollars and God granted me that request God might foresee how that might have an effect on my soul. I might not be able to handle that kind of power. I might become self-centered and greedy if I don’t have the character to handle that kind of wealth. There are times that we make requests that fall outside God’s will for us and for the overall plan he has for the world.
Un-answered prayer is one of the most challenging things to our faith. Especially when we pray for someone’s healing, who we think deserves healing. That can be very painful. There is a certain mystery in this where we trust that God has a broader vision than we do and even though we can’t understand it, we trust that God has good reasons. 
Paul prayed to have a “thorn in the flesh” removed from him, but it was not (2 Cor 12). Jesus himself prayed an unanswered prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26). He prayed for the cup to be removed from him. He prayed to not have to endure the cross. In the midst of prayer Jesus’ human will was brought into alignment with the Divine will so that he came to trust that there was great purpose in enduring humanity’s evil. So there are times when a “no” actually leads to transforming us and our will.
There are also other times when God answers the prayer, but not in the way requested, but it seems like a “no”. For example, in the first century the people were praying for a messiah who would be a warrior that would raise an army to defeat the Romans. It seems like God refused, but really God gave a messiah that defeated death for all of humanity, rather than merely defeating the Romans for Israel. What looked like a “no” was actually a “yes” but that was not answered as expected. 
There are other reasons we might receive a “no” in a request. Sometimes it is just logical. No doubt there are players on the Seahawks and the Patriots that are praying to win the Superbowl. Logically both can’t win, so one side will feel the sting of “no”.
There are other reasons we might hear a “no”. Our sin might get in the way of us understanding the will of God, and in the way of our relationship with God. We might have selfish motives. We might not be thinking about justice and service to those in need. Sometimes we pray for “my will” to be done rather than “thy will” to be done.  We might pray with a lack of faith, or sincerity, or perseverance. Or there is some other mystery in the will of God that we don’t see that leads to a “no”.  
     
When my sons ask me for ice cream I might also say “not now”. I may have planned for us to go for ice cream after supper. At home we might have had ice cream cones, but maybe I was planning on getting hot fudge Sundays. So I might ask them to wait because the timing isn’t right.
Similarly, God might respond with “not now” to our prayer requests. God sees the bigger picture and he can see that now isn’t the right time, or that he has something better planned for you in the future. This can be a difficult answer to hear because it seems like such a decent request to us, but we seems to not have an answer. At times we really have to trust that God has a greater understanding than we do and that He answers prayer according to what is best for us and for others.   

Again, we want to be careful to remember that prayer is about a relationship with God, not merely a way to manipulate God to get what we want. And so we want to remember too that we can pray by sitting in God’s presence with our mind and heart drawn to him. We can approach God in thanksgiving, and in many many other ways.

With this as our context we can come back to our question- “Does the number of people praying for something make a difference to God? If one person prays for a cause or one million pray for it, isn't it quality over quantity?” Jesus says in Matthew 18:19, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”.  So there seems to be a special strength that goes with gathered prayer, but we shouldn’t think we can manipulate God with sheer numbers. We also read in the letter of James (5:16) that “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. So there is also a certain strength in the prayers of those who have a strong relationship with Jesus, but again, we can’t use that to manipulate God either.
There is a certain mystery to all this, but it remains that we are invited by God to pray and to be his people praying for ourselves and for the world. And by doing so we participate in God’s work in the world.








[1] I once heard Dallas Willard teach on this point

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