October 15, 2014

The True Purpose of Prayer

 Recently, I was asked to share some insights at a retreat for Men and also later at a study for college aged students. I was surprised that the subject of both gatherings turned to the issue of prayer.

Why do we pray? We want answers from a Living God. We want to pour out of hearts. We want to know someone greater than us cares. Sometimes we just ask for things. But prayer like this is much more than this.

When talking about prayer, we have to start at the beginning…
It all begins with the character of God. In the book of I John, the great disciple of Jesus states, "God is love". (verse 4:16)             

God’s character is the beginning of everything good.              

The problem is with us. If we don't understand who God is and what prayer means to Him, we may be expecting results that God never intended. Then, we can become discouraged, confused, or even embittered.

Of the many characteristics of God, four stand out to me as being worth consideration as we discuss prayer. Let's look at these from a Biblical standpoint.

 1- He is Unchanging.

In the New Testament, James writes in Chapter one, verse 17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”

In other words, He is the same God for the starving children in Africa as He is for those of wealthy. Even though we do not understand his ways, and they are never subjective to the understanding of man, God is dependable.  In fact,  He is not fickle nor does His personality alter. If our image of God is dependent on our understanding of Him, our understanding becomes our highest authority, our god, not Him.

2- He is All-Knowing   
PSALM 147:5   “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; His understanding has no limit.”

God created Man. Nothing we think, do, or say, past, present or future, surprises Him. He knows all things. There's an inherent comfort in that for those of us that love and know Jesus Christ. 

3- He always cares. Our circumstances don't change His love.

Here's a classic piece of scripture that best describes this point:
Romans 8:35-39    Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:  “For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
God's love for a fallen, imperfect man is shown best in the sacrifice of His Son on the Cross for sin. That He understands and has seen all the evil men can do, and yet He loves us, it's amazing. In fact, any man who would come to Him, confessing his sins, believing in his heart that Jesus Christ is the perfect payment for sin, will find an eternity in heaven with Him. Hell is no longer his destination, and Satan no longer has a hold on him.
 4- He is Always Good

PSALM 25:8     “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.”

Let me emphasize here. God is always good- even when we do not agree with Him or get what we want. God's goodness and mercy are found all through the Bible, but all of Psalm 136 resonates:"Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His love endures forever!"

Stop and think about the times God has answered your prayers. These stories are important because they are your stories of interactions with our Living God. No one can take these from you, no one can tell you they did not happen. This is part of your history. Just think, the most powerful being ever took time to interact with you. Incredible!

Now, remembering what you just did, let’s look at prayer from God's perspective. A Biblical perspective. There's three main aspects of prayer.

1- Relationship with Him
God desires that we  would know Him and love Him. This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. After the fall of man, when the forbidden fruit was eaten, God searches for them in the garden. It's not that He didn't know where they were. It's that He wanted them to answer as to why they were hiding from Him; why they no longer desired to know Him and talk with Him. 

An Eternal Relationship. He gives us hope for an eternity with Him. An eternal, loving,  relationship. Never broken unity. No pain, no loss, no doubts. Imagine an eternity of peace, deep love, and joy. This is God's heart for us!

As far as prayer goes, He does answer prayer. For those who put their trust in Him, prayer is a two way dialogue, a by-product of relationship. Not the reason for it. Contrary to what the false teachers of the prosperity gospel would teach, God is no cosmic genie, waiting at our beck and call to give us all we ask. Instead, He is a good and perfect Father, allowing only what is best for us.


2- Transformation
The second reason for prayer is transformation. Not the Michael Jackson type of change, but the kind of change for the better. Every recovering alcoholic understands what I mean here. Ever plead with God to change you? To heal you? To make you different than what you currently are? Well, God has a plan for that kind of transformation. The plan is to make those who believe to look more like Jesus Christ. He desires to clean us up, heal our souls, and to change the course of our lives. It gives us hope and purpose, but it also means God has a plan for us...

 3-   Instruction
He wants to lead us. Our beautiful, living, powerful, good God has a plan for us. He created us and made each of us unique. Because we are made by Him to be unique, He alone knows what will most fulfill us and give us meaningful purpose. The truth is, we only think we do. Yet, until we love and trust in God, we will never discover the truth and instead, be left to search endlessly on our own.

We all want to know if we make a difference. We all want to know we will make an impression in this world before our life is over. (Go see The Fault in Our Stars, by the way.) God's plan is that all people would know and love Him. (Just read the book of Second Peter in the New Testament.) And He desires to uniquely use us for this plan. 

There’s a progression here.  In other words, if we love Him and walk closely with Him, we will: 

·      Encounter the Living God,
·      Be Changed by the Living God,
·      Be Used by the Living God.

And God desires to keep this cycle going! So, from a Biblical perspective, these are the three real purposes of prayer. As you think more deeply about each, you'll realize prayer doesn't always involve getting what we want, what we think is best. Sometimes, oftentimes, it's a very different story. 

To make sense of this fact, it helps to look at the life of Jesus as our model.

This Jesus, the one I love and follow, took on the pain and sins of Man. Once for all time. Even though His life was sinless and ours is not, there's a lot to learn by examining his life. He was, after all, a man of prayer. And what better place to look at his prayer than right before His Crucifixion.

Let's look at the Book of John, chapter 17 verses 1-4, right before Jesus is sent to be crucified.  

"After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.  For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.  Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do."
·   This was the most crucial time in Jesus’ ministry. Would He finish well? No one would dare complete this task of crucifixion unless God Himself spoke it and they loved God enough to obey. Jesus’ prayer reveals THE most important aspect of why we pray:

I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.”

But back to us. What about the things we pray about?
What happens when we pray and God answers? What happens when our life is impacted by what happens around us and to us?     It usually falls into these categories. 

·      Good things we like 
·      When Bad Things Happen
·      The consequences of our sin
·      The consequences of other’s sin
·       The results of Other people’s sin against us

What happens when we get what we asked for? When there's no answer? When the answer brings us pain? Keep reading!

When We Get What We Ask For
Rejoice and be thankful! God wants us to come to Him when things are good and not just come to Him when things are hard or when we need something. Remember how good He is! Celebrate that- and remember that.

Sometimes getting what we pray for comes with an unexpected side! There can be challenges that come with it. Opportunities to grow, change, and become more like Jesus. 

It's time for us, for me, to move away from an American mindset of Christianity. What I mean is, following Jesus does not mean we will experience success as our culture defines it. We will, however, experience success as how God defines it. And He defines it as obedience. Jesus himself says if we love Him, we will obey what He commands. Doesn't mean we'll get what the world says is a reward.

In the world's eyes, Jesus was a crucified failure. In God's eyes, Jesus completed his mission- to die for the sins of the world, to save all the people that would choose to love Him, serve, Him, and follow Him. The world would say he was a victim of a hate crime. The truth is He was no victim. Jesus was a strong, brave and obedient servant of the God Most High who completed the task set before Him- even if it looked like failure and shame.

What about When We Get No Answer?
Let’s look again at Jesus in the Garden. He knows what’s coming. He is in emotional distress, lonely, troubled. He’s in physical distress as well. His friends are too tired and worried and sad to stay awake and pray with Him. He is ultimately alone. He cries out:

 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Luke 22:42 )

The Father doesn’t change the situation, but He was strengthened. In this case, an angel appeared to Him. We may not get an angel, but we may not be asked to die on a cross either! Jesus continues on… to fulfill the Father’s plan.

Practically, when we get no answer, we can follow Jesus' model.
1-Keep Praying,  2- Wait and Watch for God, 3- Do the Last Thing He Told You

When the Answer Brings Pain

Our life's circumstances can come because of our sin, the sin of other people, or other’s sin against us. But, as we have just seen in the example of Jesus at the cross, it can also come because we are obedient to what God has asked. God works in ways and in time that we may never understand. Or it may take years before we can look at our life, look backwards, and then say to ourselves, "Now I understand."
What about the times we pray and do not get what we feel we have been promised?

Interestingly, the Bible does not ignore the fact that sometimes we do not get what God has promised. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament speaks of all the great "heroes of the faith". You know, the guys like King David, etc. The guys of Sunday School Bible stories.

Hebrews 11:39: "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised."

All the great heroes of the faith didn’t get what was promised!
We are in good company! Of course, this also brings a challenge to our minds when we do not receive our promised from God. What do we do when we think the promises of God don’t come- when it seems God is contradicting Himself?

Will we rely on our own understanding to bring us peace?
Will we trust Him, knowing His character and love for us?
Will we wait on Him even if it’s hard?

Again, will we trust in God even when it looks as if He is certainly contradicting Himself?

Looking at the topic of prayer from God's perspective always helps us. We can either choose to believe things about God that are not true, or we can believe He is unchanging, all-knowing, that He always cares and that He is always good.

The Complete and Biblical Purpose of Prayer is for Relationship with God, Transformation into the image of Jesus, and for Instruction from Him.

He wants Relationship with Us, Wants to Make us More like Jesus, Wants to Give Us Hope, and Wants to Use Us for His Purposes

· God allows the seasons so he can show his power to us, his wisdom, his goodness. Whether or not we get the answer we want or ever understand, He is still God! This we know: He does love and care for us.

I'll end here with a piece of truth from the book of Romans. (Romans 8:28-30) Through the inspiration of God's Spirit, the Apostle Paul writes:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”



Len said...

Mark, as much as I love your posts on all things Disney, your writings on God are always on a different level! This one was exceptionally excellent...thank you for reminding me about the awesomeness of our Lord and Savior...Amen!

Mark Taft said...

Thank you, Len. This means a lot to me as the Lord is infinitely more important to me than anyone else or anything else.