Recently, my pastor spoke on the topic of prayer, with Jesus’ introduction of the prayer we now call The Lord’s Prayer as the scriptural basis for his sermon.During the sermon, he brought up a very important aspect of prayer as it pertains to God’s nature.
God, being quite a bit smarter than us, more than a little wiser than us, and just darn better than us in about every way, is not the kind of guy who needs us to tell him how things are. He knows how things are. He knows what we need. Whether or not you believe that the future is pre-ordained, no matter how you wrap your head around the idea that God exists outside of time as we know it, it’s (hopefully) not a very controversial statement to say that God does not need status reports from us in order to work in our lives.
So why do we sometimes treat prayer like meeting minutes? Often, when we pray (alone or together) we end up having very informational prayers. Have you ever been in this situation at the end of a church meeting?
“Alright, do we have any prayer concerns?”
“Well, uh…my niece is sick.”
“I’m traveling this weekend.”
“Oh yeah — I’m job hunting. Interview on Friday.”
“Alright, let’s pray. Lord, heal her sick niece, watch over his travel, and help her find a job. Amen. Good meeting everyone, see you later.”
Sound familiar? I bet it does.
Sound like spiritually formative prayer? I hope it doesn’t.
Getting our Bearings
Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m not really criticizing this kind of prayer as part of the full experience of faith. Sharing our concerns with one another and lifting them up to God is not only completely legitimate but it’s also something I’ve seen God respond to over and over again in my life. God clearly does answer prayers of supplication, and I’m not at all suggesting that we should stop asking him for help.
Instead, I’m challenging two ideas: first, that prayers of supplication should be little more than checklists, and second, that such prayers by themselves make up a healthy life of prayer. Prayer is much, much more than that!
Here’s what really struck me during that sermon: We often treat prayer like meeting minutes, and we also often treat prayer like a shopping list. But that’s not what prayer’s meant to be like. Instead, prayer is like a compass.
Let’s think about a compass. The most obvious similarity to prayer is that it’s meant to help you navigate; prayer is often the most powerful when you’re lost and need to get out of trouble. But it goes further, into the nature of the thing.
A compass doesn’t tell you where to go, or how to get there, and it doesn’t magically take you where you’re going. Instead, a compass points north. It always points north. When you use a compass, you don’t orient the compass to you; you orient yourself to the compass. And then, having figured out which way is up. you can work out the direction you’re meant to go and continue toward your destination.
North is a constant*, and no amount of selfishness, ignorance, or impatience on your part will change it. You may lose track of which way north is, but north will still be north, and the compass will always bring realign you. Just this way, God is still God no matter how much or how little attention you pay him, but you can always find him when you align yourself with his magnetism.
A message from Sunder Krishnan, presented at Urbana 2009, left an indelible impact on me in this idea. Some key ideas that he expressed concisely:
So much of our praying is simply repeating back to God what he already knows, as if he needs us to tell him.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in a life of 30 years of prayer, surprising though it may seem, is fundamentally not about getting answers…circumstances outside of you may not seem to change, but you will be unrecognizably changed.
You should definitely watch his whole message. It’s full of powerful ideas.
Another little note – Pope Francis has been quoted as saying:
You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.
Again, my purpose in writing this is not to criticize or object to the “bookend” prayers that are so common in church meetings and similar settings. Rather, I want to share how beautiful prayer has been for me, how transforming it has been in my life, and how much deeper and richer it is than one might think if one’s only exposure to prayer is limited and formulaic.
I would love to know what prayer means to you.
* I know that, scientifically, magnetic north is not actually completely constant. But for the purposes of the metaphor, that’s not important.