I was raised in a tradition that prayed. We prayed before meals, before meetings, before bed–times and before football games. (I have a friend who tells me it used to make him nervous when opposing players gathered to pray. He didn’t think it made any difference in the outcome of the game, but, as he put it, “You never know.”)
I had no doubt that prayer did something; I just wasn’t sure what it was. And, I must confess, even after all these years, I’m still a bit confused. I don’t fully understand how prayer works.
Certainly, when push comes to shove, we pray whether we understand prayer or not. It springs from us impulsively and instinctively in the face of necessity. There are no atheists in foxholes, as they say, nor in any other holes we dig for ourselves. When we’re frightened out of our wits, when we’re pushed beyond our limits, when we’re pulled out of our comfort zones, we reflexively and involuntarily resort to prayer.
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Some years ago I came across this bit of whimsy that enshrines that truth.
“The proper way for a man to pray,”
Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
“And the only proper attitude,
Is down upon the knees.”
“No, I should say the way to pray,”
Said Reverend Doctor Wise
“Is standing straight with outstretched arms
And rapt and upturned eyes.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Elder Slow,
“Such posture is too proud.
A man should pray with eyes fast closed
And head contritely bowed.”
“It seems to me his hands should be
Austerely clasped in front,
With both thumbs pointin’ toward the ground,”
Said Reverend Doctor Blunt.
“Last year I fell in Hidgekin’s well
Headfirst,” said Cyrus Brown,
“With both my heels a-stickin’ up
And my head a-pointin’ down.
“And I prayed a prayer right then and there,
The best prayer I ever said.
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
A-standin’ on my head.”
Yes, indeed. In extremus, we pray. “The natural thing,” George MacDonald
said, “is straight to the Father’s knee.”
Yet the questions remain, or at least they do for me. How does prayer work? God is perfect wisdom; does he need me to tell him what to do? He is complete goodness? Does he need me to prod him into doing the right thing? He is infinite wisdom? Does he need my counsel? Is it possible that I can in some way ask God to change some vast eternal plan? Can I bend his ear and his will to mine? As Winnie the Poo would say, “It’s a puzzlement.”
In the midst of my uncertainty, however, one sure thing remains: prayer changes me. It’s one of the ways by which God turns me from the things that are in my heart to the things that are in his.
Prayer, whatever else it may be, is not calling God’s attention to things he’s not aware of, nor is it urging him to do his duty. No, it’s rather a conversation in which we speak our mind and God speaks his. We talk and we listen until we get into his mind and he gets his mind into us.
All of which means that when we get down to praying we don’t have to worry much about what to say or how to say it. We can say whatever is in us. Though our prayers may spring from anxious fear or angry, ungodly thoughts of personal revenge and vengeance, God will take those prayers into his heart and turn them into something else, and in the process he will turn us into someone else.
I think that’s what Paul meant when he wrote: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6,7).
God does answer prayer — of that I have no doubt — and I do pray for people and situations all day long. But there’s no promise in this verse that things are necessarily changed by our prayers. The only assurance is that we are changed. God’s tranquility takes the place of our anxiety; his peace transcends our panic. Prayer, thus, wrung out of us by our deepest needs, has been turned into something yet more profound. In our praying we are transformed.
This is God at work. This, at least in part, is the business of prayer.
David and Carolyn Roper co-direct the work of Idaho Mountain Ministries, a ministry of clergy care. David is the author of 14 books. The most recent: Teach Us To Number Our Days. His musings are archived on davidroper.blogspot.com/
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.