Understanding Prayer

Prayer is something I’m still trying to understand. On the one hand it seems simple to explain: we talk to God, he hears and answers. On the other hand, how do you talk to someone you can’t see or hear and, in reality, don’t understand at all? And what about when there are no answers or the answer seems to be no?

And what’s the best way to pray? On your knees, sitting down, walking, standing in line at the store or, as someone said, hanging on the edge of a cliff?

Some people’s prayers have superstitions attached, so they rationalize away the wrong answers, believing they didn’t pray correctly, blaming themselves. Others question God or blame him when they don’t receive the answers they want. Still others use unanswered prayer as an excuse to stop believing in God.

I have no illusions about being a prayer warrior and continue to question myself and God about this much discussed topic. Not long ago I read Is Your Lord Large Enough? by Peter J. Schakel, and his observations have helped me along on my path of understanding.

The first: it helps to have a good understanding (as much as possible) of who God is. I believe this is where many start off on the wrong foot. Preconceived ideas, keeping God in a little box with a nice wrapping, superstitions and misconceptions get in the way of powerful and effective prayers (James 5:16b, NIV). Of course we can’t help but have these hindrances to prayer as long as we’re human, but we can be aware of them and with the help of the Holy Spirit, learn to let God be God. As Aslan said to Lucy in Prince Caspian (C.S. Lewis): “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

He is love and wants relationship; he is merciful and kind and his will takes our prayers into account because he is the God who sees and hears us (Genesis 16:13).

The second: prayer is the process of entering and being in God’s presence. In reality we are always in his presence. He lives in the believer and is always with us, but we are not always aware of him. That’s why a monk named Brother Lawrence coined the phrase, “practicing the presence of God.”  We are the ones who need to remember he’s here and practice awareness of him by turning our thoughts toward him and praying during our daily activities.

It also helps to remember God is always listening. In a book called Whole Prayer, Walt Wangerin says his listening precedes our praying, so that we pray into a divine and merciful awareness. There’s never a time God is not listening and the very fact he listens is what turns talking into praying.

The Holy Spirit hears our moans and the cries of our hearts and turns them into prayers to the Father, so it’s of no consequence if our feeble efforts remain just that. The one to whom we pray is more important than what or how we pray. So maybe prayer isn’t so difficult to understand after all.

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