So sports are back, I guess. Anybody catch the football game this week? I heard that the one team did the thing better than the other team. It was crazy. Or maybe it wasn’t. I have to confess I didn’t watch it (I know you couldn’t tell based on my superb game summary) so I don’t know if it was crazy enough for one team to pull a Hail Mary, but I was thinking about prayer this week and how appropriate that term is for our cultural misunderstanding of the function of prayer in our lives.
John Ortberg says in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, “Prayer is something we generally associate with desperation. The idea behind this terminology is that for the majority of the game I can rely on my own resources. I will depend on my game plan and my personnel. However, at a moment of crisis and desperation when I’ve run out of time and opportunity, when human cleverness and mortal strength have failed me, and when all other options are gone, that’s the time to throw up a prayer. ‘Hail Mary…’”
Ortberg goes on to discuss a poignant image of prayer found in scripture. He points us to Revelation 8 where John is describing a scene in heaven after the seals have been broken on the scrolls that “tell the story of human sin and violence and God’s judgment.” After the last seal is broken, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Not a harp twang. Not a robe rustling. Not a sound.
An angel approaches the altar with a golden censer from which emanates much incense, which represents the prayers arising from earth before God. After this come all sorts of great acts of judgment on the earth, “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” Ortberg says, “What is most striking is that these acts come in response to the prayers of the saints. … All of heaven stops so the prayers of the saints — your prayers and mine, every one of them — can rise before God. They are heard. They matter. Prayers of real human beings — like you and me — interrupt heaven.”
We are told in 1 Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Sure, Paul, we might grumble, that’s easy for you to say. You didn’t have to deal with a global pandemic and virtual school, plus the kids are fighting again, the mortgage is due, the credit card is maxed out, the laundry is piling up, twelve work tasks need doing yesterday, and what the heck are we going to have for dinner?! Who has time to sit around praying all day? Not us!
Maybe we just need an adjustment of our mentality about prayer. For one thing, most of us probably talk way too much when we pray, instead of sitting and quietly listening to God. One way to grow in this area is to simply pray scripture, such as the Psalms, which were literally written to be sung as prayers to God. (Boom. The hard work’s all done for you. You’re welcome.) This is what the Bible means when it talks about meditating on scripture. It means reading, memorizing, ruminating on, pondering, and savoring God’s word. Praying scripture is a beautiful way to participate in this discipline.
Another benefit of praying scripture is that it requires that you get into your Bible too. If you consider that the Bible is spiritual food, we are starving spiritually if we do not regularly take in God’s word.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the fellowship must enter every day.” So if you’re only reading or hearing scripture when you watch church on Sundays, and if you’re only tossing out a half-hearted grace before meals, you’re spiritually eating only one meal a week and not properly showering at all. Gross.
Furthermore, we can only pray rightly when we know God. Tim Keller quotes Eugene Peterson in his book Prayer, saying, “Your starting point for prayer must be immersion in God’s Word.” Keller goes on: “We should not decide how to pray based on the experiences and feelings we want. Instead, we should do everything possible to behold our God as he is, and prayer will follow. The more clearly we grasp who God is, the more our prayer is shaped and determined accordingly.”
Prayer and scripture, then, are inextricably linked. God uses them both to change our desires, priorities, and ways of thinking as he gradually grows us in godliness and likeness to his son, the incarnated Word of God through whom we have direct access to the father through prayer. Reading the Bible and praying become beautiful pictures of the gospel enacted in our lives. Scripture tells us that prayer transforms us; it can literally change your life.
We should be people of the book and we should be people who pray. These should be hallmarks of who we are as believers. We want to be always about our father’s work, and we know his work by seeking after him continually, knitting our hearts together with his so that his desires become ours, so that our hearts break for what breaks his. As Julian of Norwich put it, “Prayer unites the soul to God.”
If you’re not there yet, that’s okay. Be persistent. Pray for a desire for the Word. Pray for a passion for prayer. But don’t resign yourself to being someone who isn’t “good” at prayer, as though it’s some special gift reserved for a select few so-called prayer warriors. We all can grow in this privilege — because it is a privilege to come before our holy father. Keller says, “David found a heart to pray when he received God’s Word of promise — that he would establish his throne and build him a house. Christians, however, have an infinitely greater Word of promise. God will not merely build us a house, he will make us his house. He will fill us with his presence, beauty, and glory. Every time Christians merely remember who they are in Christ, that great word comes home to us and we will find, over and over again, a heart to pray.”
Written By: Jess Glass