Theres a popular expression that seems to be going around ministry circles today that says, Nothing happens (or, nothing gets done) without prayer. Ive heard or read this saying many different places. It isnt meant literally, of course. Lots of things actually do get done without prayer and many things in spite of it. But sometimes Im so puzzled by slogans like this that I have to think for a while about the meaning they are trying to convey, especially with regard to prayer. Something bothers me about this one. Its probably the emphasis on getting things done or making things happen with prayer, as if prayer were a tool for accomplishment. Of course, it goes without saying that the accomplishments are really those of Gods design and execution, not ours, and what were really trying to say is that prayer ensures that what gets done by us is that which is aligned with Gods purpose, right? Maybe.
Too often we use prayer as a means of getting what we need (or want) from God. Its true that Jesus encourages us to ask for what we need in prayer (Matt. 7:7,11; 18:19; 21:22, etc.). But this is not all that the Bible teaches about prayer and even such promises as these come on the assumption that what is asked for is Gods idea of what is a good gift and that those asking have a certain quality of faith that aligns their intentions with Gods. Petitionary prayer (asking) comes more naturally to us than formational prayer (growing spiritually). But the latter provides the proper foundation and context for the former. Without it we have little assurance that our petitions are not simply asking God to satisfy our wants or bless our own plans. Petitionary prayer is only a small part of the model for prayer that Jesus gave us (Matt. 6:7-13). The Lords Prayer is much more about transformation than petition, especially when considered in its context of the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7.
The truth is that plenty gets done by the church without prayer. Even some very good and effective work. We all know this but like to think that these things that we do are an expression of Gods own will and work in the world. Of course they can and should be and prayer is vital to it being so. But does praying necessarily make it so? If were not careful prayer can simply become a tool that we use to apply a veneer of Gods approval of our own plans and efforts and a means of influencing others to support those plans. We dont consciously do this, but I think its a subtle process that can separate us from Gods intentions instead of joining us with them.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV)
Many times God works in ways that we do not expect or that do not seem obvious to us. So if we want to follow God rather than get caught trying to get him to follow us, discernment and sensitivity to Gods character and movement in our lives is crucial. An openness to Gods transformation of our own character into being more like his is vital. God must go first. We follow. Be cant always get God to follow us by praying and asking for his blessing even for things that seem beneficial for Gods work as we see it.
The impression of his disciples that Jesus would restore Israel as an earthly kingdom seemed reasonable to them and not out of line with Gods will (Matthew 20:21; Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6). After all, God did it once before. All the disciples were expecting was a return to those glory days of David and Solomon with Jesus, the Messiah, as king. What would be wrong with that? Someday, on a cosmic scale, we all expect that to happen. Do we sometimes get in a position of wanting and doing good things that God isnt doing? Jesus isnt here in the flesh to tell us point blank that were mistaken when this happens (My kingdom is not of this world … – John 18:36). This is why its important that prayer not be used simply as a tool.
When prayer is used as a tool to bless our plans, it can give the impression of Gods approval on them without the substance. Prayer was no doubt used in this way to justify the atrocities committed by Christians during the Crusades. Even with issues which have far less severe moral implications its spiritually hazardous to fall in to this trap. Any course of action can seem good and right to us and others simply because weve prayed about it. In my opinion, the empire building activities of many megachurch pastors fall into this category. Their success is measured by the worlds standards: Large numbers on the membership rolls and the fiscal year budget; all sanctified by prayer while many of the people who make up the church show little evidence of the life changing power of God in their character and habits. How do we know we are following God in prayer rather than our own agenda? If prayer isnt a tool, what is it?
Prayer is an environment, a communications medium in which our lives and God speak to, and touch, one another. In prayer we stand consciously and deliberately in the presence of God and are open to his scrutiny of our lives and his desire to change us as well as his love and power to bless us. If we consider all the implications of our being in Gods presence we will be less likely to use prayer to justify ourselves before a self-made image of God who is always on our side in all the ways we would like him to be.
Jesus instructions in Matthew 5:24 have profound implications for prayer. When we come into Gods presence we must be open to seeing things in ourselves that hinder our relationship with God and others and be willing to do something that is intended to remove the hinderance. I think God is ultimately more concerned with who we are more than what we want or what we do. But who we are is most evident in what we do (James 1:22-25; 2:18). Its not so much the things we do that hinder our prayers (1 Peter 3:7) or Gods forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 16:14-15). Its the kind of person we are to do them and for having done them that gets between us an God. God doesnt ask us to act out of character. He is in the business of renewing our character (2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 4:23; Colossians 3:10) so that we may naturally (really, supernaturally) do and say the sorts of things that Jesus would do and say in the particular circumstances of our lives (and, when we fall short, honestly admit it and do what is possible to make it right). This, I think, is the central purpose of prayer: Our transformation. While its true that prayer changes things, its primary purpose is to change us.
When we pray for things to happen, then, we pray rightly. God wants us to ask for what we need. But more than likely he wants the process of giving it to us to change us, to make us grow. So prayer cant really be used as a tool to realize our own desires. These may or may not be accomplished with or without prayer. We must always view the things that we ask God to do for and through us as being provisional; that they be accomplished according to his plan, not ours.
Successful ministry efforts are not sure evidence of the efficacy of our prayers. Profoundly changed human lives are. Transformation is an organic process, growing like a plant in a garden, not a programatic one brought about by managing external forms and appearances. It is qualitative (how well?), not quantitative (how much?). These things are not necessarily opposed to one another, but if appearances and quantity are produced without any basis in substance and quality they will be short-lived at best and counterproductive to Gods intentions for the church at worst. God doesnt take shortcuts. Neither should we if were following him in prayer.