As I was praying the other morning, it occurred to me that my bedroom window faces east. I thought of the prophet Daniel, who “got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks,” doing so from “his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem.” (Daniel 6:10) I long to be as faithful in my communion with God as he was. We all have different gifts, and I know some people who seem to be born prayer warriors. I am not one; developing a discipline of prayer is an ongoing challenge for me. I struggle to set aside the time and then to keep myself from reallocating it. When I do spend time in prayer, my mind betrays me. My brain is constantly ruminating on the various issues of life, so my thoughts trail off on tangents. Thinking of Daniel instead of what I meant to be praying about is just another example.
But even so, I am realizing that there is more to prayer than I used to think. Our very definition of prayer tends to focus on our petitions, as though prayer is merely asking God for things. While it is not the only thing, there is nothing wrong with bringing our requests God. Truly, we live at the mercy of God, yet, our loving Father delights to do us good. He knows we what need, but still desires that we ask. I have heard it suggested that it is inappropriate to pray for one’s self. It took me a lot of reflection to get to the bottom of why this bothered me so much. I knew it was bad theology because our relationship with God must begin with a prayer for self. So, when I heard someone say, “I don’t pray for personal gain,” my first response was, “I do!” When I fall on my knees before God asking for forgiveness and mercy, it is ultimately a selfish thing. I want to be right with God for many reasons, and all of them are for my gain. I get more happiness in this life and eternal life in the future.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
I have been considering Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, who both went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The prayer that was acceptable to God was that of the tax collector, who prayed on his own behalf, asking for mercy. The Pharisee did not really ask anything of God, but offered a kind of misguided thanksgiving. The humble heart knows its great need for God’s mercy and grace. Jesus ended that parable by stating, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b) There is an arrogance in the presumption that one should not pray for one’s self, as it demonstrates a reliance on self instead of a reliance on God.
The Gospels provide us with both Jesus’ direct instructions on prayer, and the example He set in His own prayer life. When we pray for the needs of our bodies and souls, we do nothing less than what we have been instructed to do Scripture. Perhaps the greatest lesson in prayer comes from Jesus’ petition to the Father in Gethsemane, on the night He was betrayed. Jesus prayed passionately for His own deliverance, yet yielded Himself to the will of His Father (Matthew 26:39-44, Luke 22:41-44). This attitude of the heart is perhaps the most important part of any prayer. We should be humble, recognizing our complete reliance on God, and we must also be accepting of God’s will, even if it differs from our own.
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
Still, I know that petitions are only one part of prayer because prayer is our mode of communication in our relationship with God. Communication goes two ways and involves more than just making requests of the other party. As I pondered prayer, this week, Spurgeon was right with me in his Morning and Evening devotion. He pointed out how Jesus’ constant conversation with the Father was demonstrated in Matthew 11:25, when He went from speaking with His Father silently to speaking aloud. God knows our thoughts, but we are still invited to bring them to Him. We have an open invitation to continuous communion and fellowship with our Creator and Savior, but we are required to be active in it.
As Paul instructed the Thessalonians, prayer should be “without ceasing.” (1 Thes. 5:17) This is one area that I can see improvement in my life. My mind, often prone to wandering, is learning to turn toward God in its ramblings. While I know that this is no substitute for dedicated time with God, I do believe that it is just as important. One thing I am certain of, is that disciplining myself to have better habits of prayer brings great reward. As I have made an effort in this area over the past few years, I have been happier. It seems like a selfish pursuit. Yet, it has helped me grow in godly character, and thus, I may actually be less selfish. One can’t help but appreciate the paradoxes of God’s plan for us!