Why is prayer precious?

woman praying_0

Prayer is unnatural for human beings. From our first breath we learn the art of self-reliance, whereas prayer is the art of communion with, and relying on, One greater than ourselves. That prayer comes unnaturally is ironic, given that it has from long ago been called “the breath of the soul”: God is all around us – and through faith, within us – yet we train ourselves not to recall this or experience it. It ought to come naturally, but through our sinfulness, it does not.

In our church we are reading the book “Prayer” by Tim Keller during this Lent season through to Easter (the challenge, if you want to join us, is to read one of his five “Parts” each week). Our hope is not only to learn about prayer but to deepen our life of prayer – both as individual Christ-followers, and when we come together. Since I suspect that, like me, you do not find prayer “natural”, but, rather, an activity that takes effort and practice, let’s start with a look – as Keller does in his Part One – at why prayer is so central to Christian life, and so great a privilege.

It’s hard to miss the centrality of prayer to the life of people in the Bible. Paul writes “Pray at all times” (Ephesians 6:18) and “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). The Pentecost church devoted themselves to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42), along with the teaching, fellowship, and breaking bread. The Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all prayed, connecting in a direct and intimate way with the LORD. Moses prayed often, whether in thanksgiving (Exodus 15), or intercession. The most dramatic example of the latter is in Exodus 17, where Israel is facing the Amalekite army. Moses’ strategy for faith and victory is to send his best general (Joshua) out to fight, whilst he prays, his arms raised to heaven. The battle takes so long that he tires and needs a seat – and the support of two colleagues – to keep his arms raised until victory is secure!

David composed many of the Psalms which take the forms of prayer, and which celebrate a God who hears prayer (eg 65:2, “You who answer prayer, to you all peoples will come“). Solomon’s own prayer at the dedication of the temple was that it might be a place to which Israel’s prayers could be directed with confidence (2 Chronicles 6:21).

We will look in future posts at how the Bible defines prayer, but it would be impossible to focus on prayer without putting the Lord’s prayer central: it is, after all, how Jesus taught his disciples to pray!

Jesus clearly sees prayer as a frequent, normal and central part of faith. From the very first words of his prayer “Our Father“, prayer is both a direct communion with the living God, and a response to God as He has revealed himself to us. Prayer is fellowship not with a shapeless unknown God, but with the God known in the Bible as the holy, mighty and merciful “Father” to his people.

Jesus starts his lesson in prayer this way in order to teach us perhaps the most important thing about prayer: it is not saying to God “sort this mess out” but encountering God and responding to Him in all his greatness. My prayer life will only be as great as the God I seek when I pray.

Prayer is about so much more than “asking for a parking place”, or the atheist’s classic, “God, if you’re there, sort this out for me”. It is wondering communion with God, joyous expression of gratitude, rediscovery of grace, connection with the purpose and power of God.

George Herbert (1593-1663) wrote these inspiring words (quoted by Keller) which poetically portray the breath of prayer. I make no apology for quoting them here:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.
Herbert captures what prayer is from its privilege to its power, from its mundane origin to its magnificent reach.
A few decades earlier, John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote a wonderful sixty-page chapter of his famous “Institutes” on the theme of “Prayer” (chapter 20 of Book 3). On the first page, in a memorable image, he urges his readers to uncover the treasures of the gospel through prayer,
“To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father. For there is a kind of fellowship between God and mankind by which, having entered the upper sanctuary, they appear before him and appeal to his promises…prayer digs up those treasures which the gospel of the Lord reveals to the eye of faith”.
Prayer will only seem great to us when God, and the treasures of His grace “dug up” through prayer, are also great to us. But great they are indeed.

Prayer exercise

Read Psalm 30 (a psalm of praise and thanksgiving) and spend some time putting into words your wonder at God’s greatness, faithfulness and mercy to you.

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