What It Is, What It’s Not, How It Works The reason why prayer doesn’t work for most of us is, simply, that we don’t know what we’re doing. We receive precious little instruction about prayer, about what it is and what it’s not, about our responsibility in the process, about how to apply this resource. We miss the point that we are, in fact, praying wrong; that we are in a wrong place with God and we are asking God for the wrong things—and asking them arrogantly, at that. Then, when God doesn’t jump through hoops we’ve eloquently laid out, we begin to doubt His power and even His existence, not realizing that God always answers prayer. It’s just that His answer, His acts, are in the divine realm and operate far beyond human understanding. Trusting in this process is called “faith,” a choice to operate in a realm beyond what we can see and touch and understand. But to trust in a certain knowledge that God loves us and knows what is ultimately best for us.
How many times have we seen some TV show, some soap opera, where the doctors give up, shaking their heads as the music queue swells, saying, “Now, all we can is pray.” Well, you should have prayed in the first place. Prayer is the most powerful weapon, the finest resource, we have. Real prayer is spiritual warfare. Every time we drop to our knees, we are lobbing grenades over the fence, charging forward at the enemy.
One of the main reasons for ineffective prayer is unrepented sin. Sins we are aware of, sins we’ve committed by accident. Sins we’re not even aware we’ve committed or that we’ve forgotten about. Starting your prayer with anything but a confession of sin is an utter waste of time. Your best chance at an effective prayer is to make sure you yourself are not burdened by sins that offend God.
This is patently untrue. This is, in fact, anti-scriptural. I’m not sure why we do these endless, dull, meandering, repetitious soliloquies. Matthew 6:7: “But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” How long should your prayer be? As long as it is heartfelt. Process through your longing for Him, through your need for Him. But when it becomes just a ritual, it’s probably enough already.
Well, yes and no. The length of your prayer may rely on what you need to do in order to get focused and get on one accord with God, but that’s more about you than about God. He’s not hard of hearing. It’s about us getting ourselves to the point where we are surrendered to His will and listening for His voice. Spending time with God is important. But God is more interested in quality time than hours of inauthentic wailing.
James wrote, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16). “Fervent” doesn’t necessarily mean “long-winded.” “Fervent” means having or showing great emotion or zeal; ardent. Jesus prayed for hours in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 4), and Paul prayed repeatedly for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12). Does that mean we have to beg God? That, for prayer to be effective, we have to pray all night?
Utterly ridiculous. How many times have we overhead church mothers sniffing, “Humph. That man can’t even pray.” Or, when a pulpit prayer has been particularly stirring, “Well, that man sure can pray!” I realize this should go without saying, but, the volume of your prayer has nothing whatsoever to do with the effectiveness of your prayer. Praying loud is more about you, about your emotional state and emotional needs.
I Kings 19: “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
Nonsense. The Bible teaches us that God dwells within us [John 14:17]. He is not unknowable. He is not ‘up there.” He’s right here. In you. In me. We can’t fool Him by putting on a fake accent or talking in the King James. We can’t hide from His presence by putting on our Prayer Voice. We should speak to Him respectfully, sure. But we can use our own words and our own voice.
God hears everything. That’s what “God” means. Saying there’s something God can’t do denies His omnipotence and confines Him to our human understanding. What the Bible means when it suggests God doesn’t hear the prayers of sinners is that God doesn’t act on their behalf. This is because the proper way to pray to God is beyond our power or comprehension. Jesus Christ is our intercessor (Romans 8:34), which means He untangles our language, our arrogance. Talking to God is, in and of itself, pure arrogance, the creation demanding things of the Creator. Jesus runs interference for us, correcting our grammar, discerning our true intent and knowing our heart. He acts like a spiritual translator, making sense out of our pitiful rhetoric and lobbying God on our behalf.
People who do not know Christ, who have rejected Christ—what we call “sinners,” which, again, is a misnomer since we are all sinners (Romans 3:23)—do not have access to Christ as an intercessor and, therefore, God, presumably, does not act on their behalf.
Perhaps the biggest mistake we make in our prayer life is we want to tell God not only what we want or what we need but in what manner He should act. We say, “Lord, please talk to my boss and make him give me a raise.” This limits God’s options. We’re tying God’s hands because we’ve so narrowed down the course of action that His response is often, “no.” For if He did, specifically, what we asked Him to do, chances are that could harm us in some way, somewhere down the road.
The worst thing God can imagine is us becoming separated from Him. His only motive in denying our request is preventing that separation from occurring. He desires for us to dwell with Him, abide in Him. And He knows, if we get our way, many of us simply wouldn’t be able to handle the very life change we’re asking for. It would corrupt us and cripple our relationship with God.
Don’t direct God. Don’t tie Him up in knots. The proper way to pray is not to pray for a specific action but pray for a need. Rather than pray that God would change your boss’ mind, pray that God would meet your household’s needs. A more appropriate prayer is, “Lord, we need help managing our finances. Please open doors and please give us the wisdom to see those doors opened and the courage to step through them.” This gives God a lot more options to provide creative solutions to your problems, solutions that may have absolutely nothing to do with your boss.
Too many of us close prayers with “Amen,” a practice we should stop doing because, in our mindset, “Amen” ends the prayer. Which is not true. “Amen” simply means “certainly” or “so let it be.” It does not mean, “Our connection to God is hereby closed.” We should start prayer when our eyes open. “What would You have me to do today, God?” And leave off the “Amen.” Just leave the connection open. All day. Every day. Don’t worry about tying up the line—He’s never too busy for you.
One of the reasons our prayers are ineffective is we say what we came to say and get up, going about our day. we’re too much in a hurry, too distracted by the concerns of the day. When we pray, we need to stop talking and listen—really listen—to what God is saying. Give Him time to speak to us, to inspire us and lead us to the answers we are seeking.
Finally, the most tragic product of a poor prayer life is our spiritual blinders. God has, quite often, already answered our prayer and we don’t even know it. We’re busy looking for the burning bush or the sign in the sky. But that’s not how God moves. God moves as often through motivation as through demonstration. He simply brings things to pass that He is motivated to bring to pass. And the answers we are seeking are, more often than not, already here. We’re just walking past and ignoring them because we’re not spiritually in tune with God. We’re expecting God to move in a way we ourselves have outlined for Him.
WHY FAITH MATTERS
WHAT IT IS, WHERE TO START
HOW TO KNOW YOU ARE BORN AGAIN
WHAT IT IS, WHO’S GOING THERE