When a newcomer to the Christian faith asks a penetrating question about the merits of prayer, it seems like a natural query. There is no equivalent to a driver’s education course when it comes to learning prayer. For a Christian skeptic who has never counted on prayer as a way of life, prayer can easily feel irrelevant or useless.
But when my college-age daughter asked about prayer one day, it was my reminder that the mysteries of prayer perplex more than just those unfamiliar or unsure of the Christian life. They can baffle lifelong believers too. Rachel asked innocently enough, Dad, what do you think? Does prayer change anything? Her honest question about the worthwhileness of prayer suggests that all of us need to address the subject of prayer in our own lives. Not until we have that lengthy talk will we gain sufficient tools for speaking with other people about prayer.
Does prayer work? This is shorthand for wondering whether we waste our time whenever God fails to answer our prayers. If I may be bold enough to propose a new way for considering prayer, I suggest eliminating use of the word answer from any reference to our talk of prayer outcomes. The word doesn’t fit well conceptually. It encourages an interpretation of prayer that can lean strongly toward self-interest. Before everything else, however, prayer is conversation with God. Conversations aren’t about answers. They are about engaging a relationship. They involve sharing company with someone. Deep conversations promote discovery.
I’ve long thought that deepening some of our key relationships in life may be the best way to get better at prayer. When we don’t have a good feel for how to be with another soul, or how to enjoy that friend, clumsiness in prayer may be the spiritual equivalent.
Think of your own friendships. When you spend time with a good friend who understands you well, you can’t get enough time together. Prayer has a similar allure. God not only knows us better than we know ourselves; God has this burning desire to love us. The only way to taste such goodness is to exercise our prayer lives.
Once we discover that the benefit of prayer is intimacy with God, the relationship becomes deeper than one simply arranged to satisfy our desires. The longer we hang in there with prayer, the more we encounter a God who does not provide an answer to our every want, but who offers strength for our every need.
Some people say that the first purpose of prayer is to know God. I rather think it is to enjoy God. Prayer is picking up on a relationship that is already in progress. This doesn’t mean we should panic if we have been out of touch with the Lord. Plenty of fresh access doors exist into the world of prayer. The welcome news is that none of these access points require ornate prayer language to rekindle a relationship with God. We get to use the very words that we rely on for other friendships we enjoy.
Now back to my daughter Rachel’s question: Does prayer change anything? We can never discern if the way we pray alters the universe. Who knows if our planet spins differently because we have uttered certain petitions to the Lord? God certainly has the capability to change all kinds of things, even if those moves rarely happen according to our timing or desire.
More than anything else, the greatest delight in prayer is the way it affects and changes the one praying, not the way it alters the mind of God. It’s the pray-er who gets reshaped. When we put ourselves at the disposal of God “not my will, but thy will” we find ourselves being changed in ways we never could have imagined.
The next time you find yourself talking about prayer, help the conversation along by recognizing that God doesn’t need a grocery list of our top prayer concerns. God knows and sees more urgent needs than any of the ones that occur to us. Instead, treat prayer as an opportunity to be foist into the great big world of God’s affection and to be personally changed in the process. It’s wonderful.