Prayer seems to be both a blessing and a burden for Christians. We love the idea of it – to have access to the living God at any moment — but we struggle with how poorly we execute our privilege. And in our private moments, when we’re alone or with somebody we trust, we ask lots of questions. Why doesn’t God answer prayer in a more consistent way? Doesn’t Scripture say we should pray expecting that we’ll receive what we ask for? Where is the fulfillment of that promise? Often we come to the sad conclusion that we must be praying with wrong motives or we don’t have enough faith for whatever we’re asking for. Self-recrimination can hamper our efforts and discourage us from what we know should be a regular part of the Christian life.
Maybe in all our speculations we are missing the most important question. More about that later. First, let’s look at what normally happens in prayer.
All of us tend to pray about what bothers us most. Whatever is making us worry or fret – whatever consumes our thoughts and fuels our desires – is usually what we lift up to God. That’s normal and natural. Listening to prayer requests shared among friends we notice a couple of common themes. The first is safety … the safety of our kids or other loved ones, or the safekeeping of material things we own. Lumped into this category are things like traveling mercies, good health, and quick recovery from surgeries and accidents. We ask God to protect us and those we love from all kinds of calamity, peril, and pain.
A second common request is for God to provide something for us. Often it goes beyond daily bread (necessities), focusing more on our wants. We ask for the “good” job that pays well and makes us feel fulfilled. We want to prosper and move past the state of having to depend on God for our daily needs. Like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, we want to be able to build bigger barns so we can store up provisions for years to come. In whatever area we feel vulnerable, whether in our jobs, our health, our relationships, or goals we have set, we see any setbacks or roadblocks as negative so we immediately ask God to intervene. And sometimes the requests border on the ridiculous.
Help me to pass that exam I halfheartedly studied for, Lord. Help me (or my loved one) not to suffer any pain – make it all go away! I know I made a bad decision, Lord, but would you work in a way that minimizes the fallout? Help me slide through this situation without suffering the usual consequences. Is it any wonder we grow discouraged when we’re praying like this? It’s not that God couldn’t do these things, but how likely is He to intervene to magically spare us from all pain, challenges, and adversity? Wouldn’t that cancel out much of the good work He wants to do in our lives to conform us to Christ?
Maybe we need to reflect on our prayer lives from another perspective. Not so much to figure out what we are doing wrong in our prayer techniques but to reflect on the state of our heart. Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). In speaking our prayers we reveal the concerns of our hearts. The most important question about our prayer life I believe is this: WHAT AM I FOCUSED ON?
If we are primarily self-centered (and I am so guilty of this!) we pray about what will make us comfortable and happy. We pray about what will benefit us and the people we love. We pray for success so we don’t suffer the humiliation of defeat. We pray for what will elevate us in the world’s eyes. We pray to protect our pride and feather our nest. Why? Because we believe our security is wrapped up in our status — who we are and what we own. Paul warned Timothy about this attitude in 1 Timothy 6. He tells him to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, and “to fight the good fight of the faith” (vv. 11-12). But a lot of the time we pray for things that have no bearing on our spiritual lives, things that won’t impact God’s kingdom except in some really remote way.
When I read the New Testament I’m reminded of what my focus should be. In Acts 4 Peter and John were jailed because of their bold testimony regarding Jesus. The Jewish rulers commanded them to stop speaking about Him, threatening to harm them if they persisted. Upon their release the apostles returned to their fellow Christians and told them what’d happened. “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.”
What did they pray? Not for safety. Not for the rulers to back off and become their allies. Not for protection against persecution or physical harm. Not for a safe hiding place where they could take their families. Knowing the true nature of their situation – that they’d been called by Jesus to spread the Good News – they prayed for the ability to persevere in their witness and take down the forces of darkness.
“Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (vv. 29-30). And they got an immediate answer! The place where they were meeting “was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31).
Throughout Paul’s letters we can see what he prayed for. The things he asks God to do in the churches aren’t the sorts of things we normally ask for in our prayer meetings. He wants to see His fellow believers filled with the Holy Spirit, walking in love, standing fast against their spiritual enemy, and living in unity. He asks for God to fill them with a Spirit of wisdom and revelation so they might better understand their calling in Christ. He wants them to be rooted and grounded in God’s love and to be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). He wants them to be generous, as God is. His prayer for the Christians at Colosse is that they would live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way, “bearing fruit in every good work” (1:10). When he asks for prayer for himself, he doesn’t ask the churches to pray for his safety or some special blessing. His desire is that he would have the power to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19).
Are these the kinds of prayers we lift to the Father, both for ourselves and for others? How kingdom minded are we? I’m sure the Lord is happy to receive any prayer we utter to Him. We are invited to cast all our cares upon Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). And sometimes the cares we have are mostly about being safe. He knows that and He wants us to come to Him anyway.
But if we want to see our prayer life mature and grow, we need to pay attention to the focus of our prayers and see how they reflect our hearts. Jesus told us how to prioritize our requests: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these [earthly] things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
If I want to see God move in response to my prayers, changing not only me but also my world, I need to pray out of my new life in Christ, not my old life in the flesh. I love how Colossians 3:1 sums the whole issue up. “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
We are new creatures in Christ. We have died with Him and have been raised with Him. Our citizenship is now in heaven. We are no longer controlled and defined by the world. We have access to God’s throne and we should be praying as Paul did … for the power to live fully for Him. When we care more about God’s kingdom and glory than our own comfort and security, we begin to see the results we’ve always wanted in our prayers. Then the full blessing of the privilege of prayer will be ours.
What is your focus?