June 16: Why Pray? (2/4)

June 16: Why Pray? (2/4)

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Audio of Scripture reading, sermon, and pastoral prayer only

June 16 – 4th Sunday after Pentecost

Other sermons in this series
“No Higher Calling, No Greater Impact”

Scripture: Mark 14:32-42

When I was a kid, I sometimes wondered why we said a prayer before eating a meal but not before eating a snack? Like many if not most of you, I grew up in a home where a prayer was said before every meal, and for us, that included when we ate out in a restaurant. Sometimes it was just one of us who offered the prayer—usually my father who, somewhere along the way, had been identified as the designated pray-er in the family. But most often it was a simple, short table grace we all said in unison from memory. Like I said, it was our practice to pray before every meal, and I remember wondering about its purpose when I was young.

family sitting around a table holding hands in prayer

For example, would something bad happen if we didn’t pray? After all, most table graces I heard began with a very clear request of God—a request that he do something to the food: bless it. Lord, bless this food we’re about to eat. I kind of had the sense that the pre-meal prayer was intended to have an effect on the food itself. Maybe the prayer makes the food holy. Or maybe it makes it safe to eat. Or maybe it simply makes it taste good!

On the other hand, other table graces I heard were about thanking God for the food. As I got older, I came to realize that there are multiple reasons to pray before eating. And all those reasons pretty much boil down to this: taking just a moment to acknowledge the fact that the meal, the cooks, and the people with whom we’re eating are all gifts from God. And because that’s so, it’s an opportunity thank him for it all. With this in mind, to be consciously mindful of this truth makes prayer before meals an act of Christian stewardship.

My early-in-life question about the purpose of praying before eating points to the larger question, What’s the purpose of prayer? Why pray?

Under the large question of “why pray?” are the many other questions we’ve all asked. Does praying have an effect on God? That is, does it change his mind? Does it alter his course of action upon the world? For example, last Sunday, as our daughter and son-in-law pulled out of the driveway and I quietly asked God to keep them safe from harm on their drive home, is it possible that my prayer resulted in God protecting them from an accident that might have happened otherwise? When we pray for peace to come to parts of the world that have been at war and conflict for generations, do we believe that such a seemingly small petition on our part actually results in a reduction of conflict in some part of the world? And, as we briefly touched on last week, to what extent does praying for a miraculous healing have any bearing on God’s response to the situation for which we’re praying? These questions get at our wonderment about how our prayers effect God.

That leads us to wondering about how our prayers affect ourselves, or the situations in which we find ourselves. Along that line, one question I received is, If God already knows what we’re going to pray for, then why pray for it? That’s a fair question, especially if we believe that God is all-knowing. A similar question is, If God has laid out his plans for us before we’re born, then why pray about it? This question may be based on Psalm 139:16, where the psalmist professes, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” If the direction of my life is already laid out by God, why pray about it? A third related question someone asked is, Who benefits from my prayers—me, for saying them, or the people for whom I’m praying?

These are good questions, and I firmly believe that seeking answers to them can go a long way in strengthening one’s faith. As a pastor, it’s been my experience that the people who sincerely ask these kinds of questions are usually the people whose faith is growing tremendously. But my one counsel has always been this: there are usually more questions than there are answers. When the answers you seek allude you, or if they don’t provide the certainty you may be looking for, keep the faith anyway. Because being a disciple of Jesus Christ has never been about having all the answers or having all knowledge. So…keep asking questions. Keep seeking understanding. But also, keep the faith.

This morning, I’d like to share some thoughts about why it is we pray; what it ultimately accomplishes.  As a way of digging into that, let’s hear about a time Jesus prayed. After he and his disciples had just finished their Last Supper together, they walked to the garden called Gethsemane where he leaves all but three of them, whom he takes further into the garden where he wants to spend some time in prayer.

The simplest definition of prayer is probably this: conversing with God. Prayer is the mechanism God’s given us to interact with him. Prayer is how we live into our relationship with the Lord.

How do we best live into our human relationships? Through dialog and conversation. Talking and listening. That’s how we relate to and interact with one another. And it’s how we interact with God. We’ve just given this particular interaction a name: prayer.

In our human relationships, there isn’t just one reason we talk with one other, right? There’s a myriad of reasons. Most of the time, our purpose is simply to be in relationship with each other. I share with you what we’ve been up to;  you share with me what you’ve been doing. Maybe I’ll seek your thoughts on a matter. Maybe you’ll encourage me if you notice I’m struggling with something. But if you think about it, with regard to the content and purpose of our daily conversations with one another, making requests comprises very little of it. Certainly, we do make requests of one another, except for narcissists, the vast majority of our human interactions don’t come down to please do this for me.

It should be the same when it comes to conversing with God. I would argue that the brunt of our prayers should be about just working our relationship with him.

  • God, here’s what’s going on in my life; here’s what I’m dealing with.
  • Jesus, I saw a child today who I think is being neglected, and I walked away feeling sad and powerless to do anything about.
  • Lord, thank you so much for inspiring my friend to write this note to me. It came at just the right time.
  • God, today at church I heard about a need, and felt a little stirring in my heart to help out. I’d like to do this. What do you think?
Jesus and a young man sitting together on a bench talking to one another

Talking to God about your day, your thoughts, your hopes, your fears, your questions.And then listening for his response.

Obviously, there are going to be times when we come to God with a request. The Bible is full of people asking God for something: victory in battle, greater wisdom, forgiveness for a sin, a blessing upon his people, to name just a few examples. Jesus encourages us to come to God with requests. During his last evening with his disciples, John records at least five instances of Jesus telling them that whatever they ask for in his name, it will be given to them. Here they are:

  • John 14:13 – “I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son.”
  • John 14:14 – “When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.”
  • John 15:16 – “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you.”
  • John 16:23-24 – “I assure you that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Up to now, you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive so that your joy will be complete.”

Clearly, the Lord wants us to come to him and ask for things. And that’s because he enjoys blessing us with heavenly blessings. James 1:17 says that “every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights.”

The primay purpose of prayer is to align our hearts with God’s heart.

The problem, though, is that we too easily misunderstand what Jesus means when he says that God will give us whatever we ask for in Jesus’ name. We interpret this statement to mean that God’s some kind of heavenly Santa Claus. Or that if we tack a holy “in the name of Jesus” onto our request, somehow God’s obligated to grant it. And while we could devote a whole sermon series to what it really  means to pray “in Jesus’ name,” suffice it to say right now that that’s not a magical formula to get whatever we want. What I believe Jesus is getting at—and what praying in his name kind of boils down to—is that when our request aligns with God’s will, it will be granted.

And this brings us to heart of the purpose of prayer, and why we pray. The primary purpose of prayer is to align our hearts with God’s heart. The unfortunate reality is that most of us, myself included, tend to come at it for the opposite reason – to try to align God’s heart with our hearts. That’s not to suggest that what we ask for is always bad or unholy or always selfish in nature, but simply that it’s our human tendency to lay before God what we think is right and good to ask for. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask for what we want, but we need to remember that in the end, it’s not about what we want but what God wants. It’s us aligning our hearts with God’s heart.

This was how Jesus approached his conversation with our Heavenly Father in the garden. He was very forthright with the Father about what he wanted and didn’t want. Knowing the torturous pain of crucifixion, he made it very clear that he’d rather not be subjected to it. And because he knew the Father had the power to stop it, he asked for it. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me.” That’s what he, human Jesus, wanted. But his prayer didn’t stop with what he wanted. “However,” he continued, “not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). In the traditional language of the King James, “not my will but thy will be done.”

In his Forward for the book, “the Praying Church” by Edmund Salas, Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Charles Kraft writes that “prayer is partnering with God to bring about his Kingdom, his will on earth as it is in heaven” (p. xiii). That’s a purpose I can wrap my head around. Prayer is partnering with God. Prayer is us coming alongside God and asking, What is it you want?  What do you want me to do? What do you want us to do? It’s us telling God to make us want what he wants; to mold our hearts after his heart. Wasn’t that what God ultimately commended King David for when he called David “a man after [my] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14)? No doubt, you’ll recognize this as the theme for a well-known chorus we’ve sung here: “Change my heart, O God, make it every true; change my heart, O God, make me more like you.”

So, do our prayers have an effect on God? I believe they sometimes do, even though we many never truly know when that’s been the case. There are certainly some examples in Scripture of prayer altering God’s response to situations.

Is there any reason to pray about something if God already knows what I’m going to pray for? Absolutely! Because the purpose of my prayer is not to convince God to see things my way, but for me to try to see things his way. In this sense, my endeavor to bring a concern or issue before God might alter me. If I’m also listening for God’s voice, I might gain a new perspective, one that’s closer to God’s point of view.

Likewise, if, as the psalmist puts it, all the days of my life have been ordained and laid out before God, is there still a reason to hold my life before God in prayer? Absolutely! Because, again, doing so is my way of maintaining my relationship with him so that I’m more likely to stay on the path he’s laid out for me more often than when I go about it my own way.

Who benefits from my prayers—me or the people I’m praying for? I’d say both of us. Years ago, I heard someone talk about how their own act of forgiving someone who’d hurt them in the past impacted the person they forgave. They lived far apart from each another, and had no communication, so what unfolded was not the result of their interpersonal interactions—because there were none. Person A had asked God to help her forgive person B. At some point in her praying about it, she verbalized her forgiveness. “So and so,” she said aloud, “I forgive you.” At some point after that, Person A learned that Person B had also struggling that whole time with trying to forgive someone else, Person C. And what Person A discovered was that it was very soon after she’d consciously forgiven Person B that Person B sensed the wherewithal to forgive Person C. The person sharing this experience, Person A, went on to express the belief that prayer works in the spiritual dimension of our earthly existence. In her case, the act of prayerfully forgiving a person who lived hundreds of miles away and with whom she had no contact had the effect of spiritually freeing up that person so that he himself could forgive the person who trespassed against him. Our prayers benefit ourselves and others.

sketch of a large dog jumping up on a standing man
Father Tim’s meets Barnabus for the first time, from “At Home in Mitford” by Jan Karon

I’m a fan of the fictional ‘Mitford’ series of books whose main character is Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest. Throughout the book, Father Tim regularly makes reference to something I’d never heard of before but is an actual thing. It’s ‘the prayer that never fails.’ The prayer that never fails. Human experience tells us that asking for a miraculous healing isn’t the prayer that never fails—for obvious reasons. Nor is it the asking of God for certain things we’d like to have. Nor the request for certain outcomes we think are best. The prayer that never fails is actually one we pray on a weekly basis and it’s only four words long. Thy will be done. Your will, O God, be done. That’s a prayer that God will always answer in the affirmative. He will never not accomplish his will.

So, whenever we present our requests and petitions and intercessions to God, and ask that his will be done in whatever we’re asking, we can know that what follows is in alignment with God’s ultimate will and purpose. This is what Jesus did. And this is what we should do as well.

Let’s pray.


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