“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” from “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing; spiritual preparation for the office of confession” Soren Kierkegaard, 1956
If God knows our thoughts and dreams, and knows what we need, why pray? According to the New Testament, we should pray for a variety of reasons:
• prayer is a form of serving and obeying God (Luke 2:36-38);
• we pray because God commanded us to pray (Philippians 4:6-7);
• Jesus and the early church prayed (Mark 1:35; Acts 1:14; 2:42; 3:1; 4:23-31; 6:4; 13:1-3).
• to prepare for major decisions (Luke 6:12-13);
• to overcome barriers (Matthew 17:14-21);
• to gather workers for the spiritual harvest (Luke 10:2);
• to gain strength to overcome temptation (Matthew 26:41);
• to obtain the means of strengthening others spiritually (Ephesians 6:18-19).
If Jesus needed to pray to remain in God’s will, how much more do we need to pray?
God promised that our prayers are not in vain, even if we do not receive specifically what we asked for (Matthew 6:6; Romans 8:26-27) and that we often go without because we do not ask (James 4:2). If we ask for things that are in accordance with God’s will, we will receive what we ask for (1 John 5:14-15), but sometimes we do not get an immediate answer because of God’s wisdom and for our benefit. In these situations, we are supposed to be diligent and persistent in prayer (Matthew 7:7; Luke 18:1-8). We should not pray as a means of getting God to do our will, but, since God’s wisdom far exceeds ours, as a means of helping God’s will be accomplished on earth. We have God’s promise that the fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much (James 5:16-18).
Communication with God
I think we need some method of communicating with God and prayer is the logical answer. But prayer in which we stop everything we are doing, get down on our knees, fold our hands and pray is not my idea of prayer. I think we should try to communicate with God any time we have a second to think about God or ask God to be with a loved one or friend, or share anything in our life with God. While driving, when watching TV, while on the lake alone, working in the garden, any of those times and many more, we should take a moment to commune (talk, whatever word you want to use) with God. It may be that those moments are more for us than for God, but I like to think that God listens and cares. I admit that I get awfully frustrated when I feel God is not listening because my petitions are not immediately answered in the way that I have requested. I know God’s answer may be “no,” but that is difficult to swallow.
Notice, please, that I have said pray to God, not to Jesus, and not to the Virgin Mary. I much prefer to go directly to the source. I want to pray directly to God, not through any intermediary. I do not understand praying to someone to ask them to petition God. Of course, praying directly to God fits my theology, while praying another way may be extremely satisfying to others. Praying is the important thing.
Prayer as a Magic Formula
When I was young my favorite Bible verse was “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Mark’s equivalent to John’s verse is “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). Matthew’s equivalent is “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22). Those verses sound like magic formulas. Whatever I prayed for would be done as long as I asked for it in his name, and that meant ending my prayer with “in the name of Jesus” or “for Christ’s sake.” Adding one of those magical phrases at the end of public or private prayers seems to add a “this-cannot-fail-to-come-to-pass” attitude. We have said the magic words so this will be done, even if it is not God’s will. That is a dangerous attitude! That is the same as waving a magic wand to get whatever we want. I eventually learned that prayer does not work that way, but I still think a lot of people pray with that mind-frame. I have heard some prayers that come dangerously close to those sentiments. Many believers appear to think of prayers as adult letters to Santa Claus.
The Lord’s Prayer
In their gospels, Matthew and Luke included a prayer that Jesus taught that we call the Lord’s Prayer, but their versions of the prayer are not the same as we can see below:
Matthew’s version (Matthew 6:9-13 NRSV):
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Luke’s version (Luke 11:1-4 NRSV):
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Evidently neither Paul nor Mark, who wrote prior to Matthew and Luke, had heard of this prayer and John’s gospel doesn’t mention of it either. If it had been a model prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, I doubt that three of the five major writers of the New Testament would have ignored it.
The prayer also contains a messianic interpretation of Jesus that was applied to him by the church, not by Jesus himself.
I am not thrilled with the first line – “Our Father who art in heaven” – which implies that God is not here, with us, around us, or in us.
“Father” does not bother me, but I realize there are a lot of people who did not have good relationships with their earthly fathers, so it is difficult for them to equate God with father.
Even though some ancient authorities added some form of “for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever, Amen,” to Matthew I am really amazed that biblical literalists did not revolt against that traditional added ending.
There are several modern translations of the prayer, but God is still the “Father in heaven,” and is somewhere distant.
The Message paraphrased by Eugene Peterson:
Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.
Set the world right; do what’s best – as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the devil.
You’re in charge! You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.
Contemporary English translation; published in 1995:
Our Father in heaven, help us to honor your name.
Come and set up your kingdom, so that everyone on earth will obey you, as you are obeyed in heaven.
Give us our food for today.
Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others.
Keep us from being tempted and protect us from evil.
New Living translation:
Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.
May your kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.
Good News Bible translation:
Our Father in heaven; may your holy name be honored;
May your Kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.
Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil One.
What Did Jesus Say About Prayer?
In addition to the Lord’s Prayer, what else can we find about what Jesus said concerning prayer?
According to the earliest written gospel, Mark, after Jesus visited the home of Simon and Andrew and had healed Simon’s mother-in-law, very early the following morning, Jesus arose and went outside to a deserted place where he prayed (Mark 1:35). After Jesus healed a leper, similar to Mark, Luke wrote that he went to a deserted place to pray (Luke 5:16). On another occasion, after Jesus sent his disciples ahead by boat to Bethsaida, Mark said that he went up on a nearby mountain to pray (Mark 6:46). Similar to Mark, Matthew said that after one of his miraculous feedings, Jesus went up a nearby mountain by himself to pray (Matthew 14:23). When Jesus healed an epileptic child, the disciples could not understand why they could not heal the child. Jesus told them that this type of healing (or exorcism) was only possible through prayer (Mark 9:29). Similar to a line from the Lord’s Prayer, Mark had Jesus say, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Mark and Luke both have Jesus condemning the long prayers of the scribes, which they said were “for the sake of appearance” (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). In Gethsemane, Jesus instructed the disciples who were with him to “Sit here while I pray” (Mark 14:32). Similar to Mark, Matthew said Jesus instructed the disciples to “Sit here while I go over there and pray” (Matthew 26:36). When he went a little farther and was alone, “he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35). Also similar to Mark, once Jesus is alone he throws himself on the ground and prays that God will allow this bitter cup to pass, but assures God that he will be obedient to his will (Matthew 26:39).
Later after Jesus returned to find them asleep, he instructed them to stay awake and pray that they would not be tempted (or “come into the time of trail”). Then he went away again and prayed, using the same words as before (Mark 14:38-39). Then very much like Mark, Matthew wrote that Jesus instructed the sleepy disciples to stay awake and pray that they will not be tempted. Then Jesus went away to be alone and prayed to God “if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” In Matthew, he left them a third time where he prayed the same words again (Matthew 26:41-42, 44). According to Luke, the disciples followed Jesus to the Mount of Olives where he told them to pray that they would not “come into the time of trial.” Then he went a short distance away, knelt and prayed with such anguish and so earnestly that his sweat was like (not was, but became like) drops of blood. Afterwards, he returned to find the disciples sleeping and told them again to “Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trail” (Luke 22:39-41, 44-46).
According to Matthew, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his listeners that Leviticus had told them to love their neighbor, but his followers should do even more – they should love their enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:44). Similar to Matthew, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, has Jesus telling his listeners to bless the people who curse them and “pray for those who abuse” them (Luke 6:28). During the same oration (or sermon), Matthew said that Jesus warned against praying like the hypocrites who love to be seen praying in the synagogues and on the street corners. Instead, he told his listeners that they should go into their room, shut the door and pray to God in secret.
He also warned against praying with many empty phrases like the Gentiles (Matthew 6:5-7). Little children were brought to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them (Matthew 19:13). Condemning those in the Temple by calling them robbers of what should be a house of prayer, Jesus quotes bits of Jeremiah 7:11 and Isaiah 56:7 (Matthew 21:13). Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus quote Jeremiah and Isaiah concerning the temple being a den of robbers when it should be a house of prayer (Luke 19:46).
According to Luke, during his baptism by John the Baptist, as Jesus was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus (Luke 3:21). The Pharisees questioned Jesus why John’s disciples frequently fasted and prayed, while his disciples ate and drank (Luke 5:33). It seems that Jesus loved to pray up in the mountains; in Luke he spent the night on a mountain praying to God (Luke 6:12). In addition to praying on a mountain, Jesus often prayed alone (Luke 9:18, 28). Once while he was praying, Luke said “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). Another time Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray (Luke 18:1). Another parable was about a Pharisee and a tax-collector praying in the temple. The Pharisee stood and prayed loudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.” But the tax-collector humbly prayed “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-13). As his death neared, Jesus admonished his disciples to pray that they would have the strength to escape all the things that were going to take place, and “to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36). In predicting Peter’s denial, Jesus said he had prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:32).
Surprisingly, there are no mentions of the words “pray” or “prayer” in John’s gospel, but during the crucifixion Jesus looked up and uttered what might be considered a prayer: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you…” (John 17:1)
These are just a small sample of over a hundred instances in which the words “pray” or “prayer” occur in the rest of the New Testament. I am not going to include them here; I was more interested in determining Jesus’ attitude towards prayer.
The Power of Prayer
Most Americans, at least a very high percent, pray – for their health, for their love life, for final exams and for loved ones. But does prayer do any good? Is there such a thing as the “power of prayer”? Scientists have tried to test the power of prayer with mixed results. Recently some scientists are exploring the power of prayer in a new way.
In his book, The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown talks about a very real and interesting science called Noetics, which studies the untapped potential of the human mind. The term “noetic science” was first coined by Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, in 1973. Mitchell was inspired to investigate the power of the human mind after he experienced a feeling of universal connectedness on the return trip to Earth from his space flight. He then created the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) which sponsors and conducts research about the capability of consciousness and the human mind.
Some of noetic science’s experiments have proven that focused thought can affect things, including the growth rate of plants, the direction that fish swam in a bowl, the manner in which cells divided in a petri dish, and the synchronization of separately automated systems. Katherine Solomon, the fictional Noetic scientist in Brown’s book, created beautifully symmetrical ice crystals by sending loving thoughts to a glass of water as it froze. And when she sent negative, polluting thoughts to the water, the ice crystals froze in chaotic, fracture forms.
Following the horrifying events of September 11, 2001, four scientists discovered that as the terrified world focused in shared grief on this single tragedy, the outputs of thirty-seven different Random Event Generators around the world suddenly became significantly less random. Somehow, the coalescing of millions of minds had affected these machines.
So can focused thought in the form of prayer achieve miraculous results?
In The Lost Symbol, Brown had one of his characters mention a Washington D.C. cathedral that had prayer chains praying for the sick. They repeatedly witnessed truly miraculous results, medically documented healings.
Recent studies in mass prayer, or prayer chains, have produced similar results. Dr. William Harris, a cardiologist, conducted an experiment concerning the power of prayer. For one year a thousand of the doctor’s patients were divided into two groups. One group received medical treatment and was prayed for by a volunteer group, while another group was not prayed for but received medical treatment. None of the patients were told which group they were in. After one year, the patients that had been prayed for had eleven percent less life-threatening complications.
In another study, Dr. Elizabeth Targ studied the therapeutic effects of prayer. She selected practicing healers from a number of religious traditions – Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Indian shamans – who were supplied with the first names, blood counts and photographs of twenty advanced AIDS patients. Over a ten-week period, the healers prayed for these patients, but not for twenty other AIDS patients. According to Dr. Targ, the prayed-for patients had fewer and less severe new illnesses, fewer doctor visits, fewer hospitalizations and were generally in better moods than those in the “not-prayer-for” group.
Those two studies suggest that prayer definitely has power.
However, Mitchell W. Krucoff, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and his colleagues designed an experiment involving seven hundred forty-eight patients who underwent treatment for heart problems at nine hospitals around the country. The researchers enlisted a dozen congregations of various Christian denominations, along with Jews, Muslims and Buddhists from around the world to pray for some of the patients, giving them the names and ages of the patients and a description of their illness. The researchers divided the patients into four groups: one group had people praying for them, the second received a nontraditional treatment known as music, imagery and touch (MIT) therapy, which involved breathing techniques, soothing music, touch and other ways to relieve stress, such as calming mental images, the third received both prayer and MIT, while the fourth received nothing. Neither the patients nor their doctors knew if someone was praying for them. Overall, the researchers did not discover any difference among the four groups. For one thing, the researchers found they could not accurately measure factors such as the dose of prayer administered nor could they account for the possible effects of family members praying for patients. Dr. Krucoff did not want to minimize the power of power, however. He felt that the therapeutic benefit to prayer should be studied in future trials.
When we pray with other believers, the effects can be very positive. Corporate prayer unifies us as we share our faith. It is edifying to those who are alone and struggling with life’s burdens to hear others pray for their loneliness and their daily struggles. As we intercede for them in prayer, it also helps build our love and concern for those for whom we pray.
Sadly, corporate prayer can also be words that are not directed to God, but to the congregation. Matthew 6:5-8 warned against prayers that are showy, long-winded, or hypocritical.
As far as I am concerned, corporate prayer, as practiced in many main line denominations, is often filled with pretty language, and is too stilted, long, and often showy. I am not convinced that type of prayer does much good for man or God.
The Way We Pray Defines Our Concept of God
As prayer is traditionally understood and practiced, God is a supernatural being who has the power to hear and the ability to respond like a human being. This theistic being can intervene in our lives to fix them and to shape them according to God’s will.
If God has the power to cure cancer, to stop war, to create a just society, to prevent such atrocities as the Holocaust and does not use that power then God is malicious.
The Best Prayers
In my opinion, people who pray well are the ones who talk to God as they would talk to a close friend. Unfortunately, most of our prayers are not like that. Often it seems like a one-way conversation that is going nowhere.