Most of us hunger for an intimacy with God that somehow seems to elude us. Weíd like the same chance the disciples had to ask Jesus himself to teach us to pray. We wish our prayers were more satisfying and more full of life, yet we seem unable to pull it off. Most of us talk more about prayer than we actually pray!
Many feel that nothing short of a miracle will ever transform our prayer lives into deeply fulfilling and intimate contact with God. And weíre right! Nothing short of a miracle will do. Yet such a miracle did happen to the early followers of Jesus. In an astonishingly short period of time, God turned these sometimes spiritually lazy people into astonishing men and women of prayer.
Before their transformation, the apostles usually messed things up. They always seemed to be get everything backwards. They fell asleep while Jesus sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane. They fled at his arrest. They seemed more often scared than faithful; more greedy than generous; more angry than forgiving. Yet something happened to transform even the eleven into men of prayer.
What happened to them? They discovered the nature of God. Not some abstract theological concept. Not some distant, disapproving, judge. Not some broad, philosophical principle. They discovered God Himself -- God in three persons -- blessed Trinity. And they discovered that knowing God as He is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is utterly transforming. Intimacy with God, experiential contact with God the Holy Spirit, God the Son, God the Father, comes from relating to the Trinitarian God as He is.
Letís begin with God the Holy Spirit. The early Church was utterly transformed because they found that God the Holy Spirit is the very source of prayer.
Surprisingly, true prayer is for people who donít know how to pray. Prayer does not begin with us, our words or thoughts. Nor does prayer begin in spiritual strength. Rather, prayer begins in our weakness. In our need. Because prayer doesnít begin with us, but with the Spirit of God. Prayer begins, not when we initiate it, but when the Holy Spirit, who lives in the very center of our being, prays for us according to our needs, and according to the will of God. St. Paul put it like this:
Likewise, the Spirit also helps in our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for, as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)
In our pride, arrogance and self-centeredness, we like to think that we are adequate for prayer. We think weíre ready to write our own prayer agenda. We think that our prayers should be in our own words -- out of our own spiritual strength.
But Scripture says we really donít know how to pray. We donít even know what we should pray for. Nor do we know the will of God. In fact, sometimes we donít know our own mind! But the Spirit knows. He helps us in our weakness because He knows us intimately, and He knows the will of God perfectly.
The Spirit knows what is in our hearts, because He lives there. He knows everything we feel, think and need. He knows the secrets we wish to hide from others, from God, and even from ourselves. So, His prayers for us are much more on target, on our behalf, than any prayers of our own. But more than that. Unlike us, His prayers are always according to the will of God. Prayer begins, then, not in strength, but in weakness; not with us, but with the Spirit praying within us. Good prayer, great prayer, perfect prayer is already going on within us!
Some people worry about praying for the wrong thing. They caution, ďBe careful what you pray for! It might happen!Ē But our God is wiser than that! Suppose your little daughter told you that for her birthday, what she really wants is to run off to join the circus. Would you grant her permission, just because she asked for it? Of course not! You love her too much to grant such a harmful request! Unless you think that you are wiser than God, you never need worry about His answering an equally silly prayer! We can trust God to know enough NOT to grant our requests when theyíre not in our best interests!
Knowing that the Spirit is already praying for us, according to the perfect will of God, sets us free to pray. When we donít have to worry about what weíre praying for, or how to pray, weíre free to be ourselves before God -- children before their loving Father. Whether we use prayers that we have written ourselves or that are in the Prayerbook, prayers set to music in the Psalms or the Hymnal, prayers that well up within us from the spontaneity of the moment or in which we stand silent and mute before the majesty of God, we can trust the Spirit to take those prayers, add them to His own, and send just the right words on to the Father. Good prayer, great prayer, perfect prayer is already going on within us!
Once we learn to trust the Spirit to be praying within us, and for us, our own prayers become a lot less work, and a lot more fun! Praying becomes more relaxed, more trusting, more frequent. Our prayers improve in both quality and quantity.
But the One God is not one person. So prayer is not limited to an experience with the Holy Spirit. Those early Christian discovered intimate, fulfilling, satisfying prayer depended not only the Spirit, but also the Father. Transforming prayer happened as they learned to trust the Father to receive our prayer graciously. God the Father is amazingly eager to listen to all our prayers!
Again, hear the words of St. Paul:
What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Romans 8.31-32)
Itís often hard to believe that God really likes to answer our prayers! Our prayers never bother or pester Him! He enjoys our company. He really likes us.
The truth is that we will never understand prayer until we understand the Gospel of Grace. God the Father gave us His Son. He delivered His own Son to sinners. To His enemies. To the ungodly. To the unbelieving. To the uncaring. To the nonreligious. To the guilty. To the uncommitted. To us.
St. Paulís argument is clear: If the Father would do that -- if He would give us His Son for us -- what lesser thing would He ever withhold from us?
The true foundation for all prayer is Grace. There is nothing we can do to compel the Father to listen to us. There is no reason within us why the Father should hear our prayers. The Father listens to us, not because of who we are, but because of who He is: The Father who loves us, who forgives us, who invites us, who welcomes us -- not as we wish we were, but as we are. Remember what the writer of Hebrews wrote?
Let us therefore come boldly before the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in our time of need. (Hebrews 4.16)
Think about it! He didnít say, ďCome boldly before the throne of rejection, anger, dismay, disgust and discipline.Ē He said, ďCome boldly before the throne of grace!Ē
Perfect people donít need mercy and grace! The Father did not send His Son for people who didnít need Him; but for people like us -- people who need help! The people that God invites before His throne of grace are needy people. Broken people. Wounded people. Fallen people. Failures. Sinners.
So we Christians experience transforming prayer by trusting the Father to receive us, not as we wish we were, but as we really are. We must never base our prayers on our own righteousness, commitment, consistency, maturity, spirituality, theological depth, character or experience! The Father graciously, eager and passionately desires to hear us. He is amazingly in love with us.
God loves to be with us -- which is what prayer essentially is. Prayer is just being with God. Prayer is being intentional about standing in His presence. Prayer is being attentive to Godís voice and Godís listening ear. Because He speaks, we listen. Because He listens, we speak. We cry out to Him from the depths of our wounded, broken hearts. Prayer is being aware of Godís presence, His infinite, unbounded, unbelievable grace, His love, His mercy, His word and His interest in our affairs.
When we pray, however we pray, whatever methods of prayer we use, we can trust the Father to receive those prayers. Once we learn to trust the Father to hear us, graciously and eagerly, we sense a new freedom in prayer. Praying becomes more relaxed, more trusting, more frequent. Our prayers improve in both quality and quantity.
The early Christians found that prayer begins with the Holy Spirit, and they found they could trust the Father graciously to receive their prayers. Now, what about the Son? What they found was this: The risen and ascended Jesus, now sitting at the right hand of God, gathers our prayers up into His own prayers. He is the way, the path, or the road along which our prayers run from the Spirit to the Father. As St. Paul continues:
Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore, is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. (Romans 8.34)
Intercession is praying on behalf of another. And ever since Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, He ever lives to make intercession for us.
One primary cause of our failure in prayer is our own pride. We tend to think that in our own prayers we are the key players. But the truth is, weíre not the key player. Jesus is.
We know that while we sleep, Jesus doesnít. He prays. When we wake in the morning, we know that Heís been praying for us all night long. As we go through our day, every minute, every second, whatever we do, Jesus is interceding for us -- every moment.
Thus, whenever we pray, we never pray alone. Jesus is already there, praying for us and with us. We never initiate prayer. Rather, we join in with His prayers which have been going on all the time. We lift our voices to join in with His ongoing song.
Itís somewhat like flying across the country. Hopefully, the airline people have everything under control. They plan, fuel, manage and run the flight. We donít have to understand aerodynamics, navigation, management or how the engine works. Pretty much all we have to do is just show up, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride! We join in with something thatís already going on. If we miss the plane, it flies without us. The only difference is that we fail to go anywhere ourselves.
And thatís how it is with prayer. Jesus has already been praying, all this time. We join in with something that is already going on. We might just as well sit back, relax, and enjoy our time with God! Prayer doesnít have to be such a difficult, unpleasant task! Be still. Be quiet. Quit talking so much. Sit back. Relax. We can enjoy prayer more by becoming attentive to what God is doing rather than trying to run the show ourselves.
So, let me say this again: Whether we use prayers that we have written ourselves or those that were written for us in the Prayerbook, whether we use prayers from the Psalms or those set to music in the Hymnal, or whether we cry out those prayers that well up within us from the spontaneity of the moment or remain silent before His majesty, we can trust Jesus to have been praying for us all along. We can simply add our prayers to His. Once we learn that when we pray, weíre joining in with something thatís already going on, then we can trust Jesus with our prayers. We can spend time in the presence of God, without worrying so much about whether the process is working. Of course itís working, because Jesus is already doing most of the work! Our prayers become less work and more fun. They become more relaxed, more trusting, more frequent. Our prayers improve in both quality and quantity.
The early followers of Jesus were transformed into astonishing men and women of prayer, not because of what they did, but because of what they trusted the Triune God to do. Believers walk in faith -- trusting God even with their prayers. We too can be transformed, just as they were, by trusting God with our prayers.
Prayer begins not with prayer or with our need, but with God. We begin by reflecting on our relationship with the One God, God in three persons, the blessed Trinity. And as we reflect, we can find that today can become a new beginning in our life of prayer. Over the next few months, you can begin learning to pray more easily, more confidently, more intimately, and more frequently. Begin learning how to trust the Spirit to be the source of prayer within you. Begin learning how to trust the Father, eagerly, lovingly and graciously to receive your prayers. Begin learning how to trust Jesus to carry your prayers along with His. Let your prayers mix in with the ongoing prayers of Jesus. Let your voice join in with His song! Begin trusting the Triune God with your prayers. Prayer ought never be an obligation. It can become the very center of our experience of God. Just as we are, weak and needy; and just as He is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let this day be a day of new beginning as you begin making prayer the center of your experience with God.