Monday, April 6, 2009

How to Pray

We don't control prayer. We control only when we pray and how we pray, but only God controls when and how he answers prayer.

Too many people use prayer like letters to Santa Claus: "Dear God, I want this, this, this and this, and please hurry, I need them by next week." No matter how faithful you are, it just doesn't work that way.

There's a very good reason it doesn't work that way too. Suppose God really liked Tom, so he gives Tom a modest .5% return on his prayers. That is, God gives Tom what he prays for one half of one per-cent of the time.

One half of one per-cent doesn't sound like very much, but consider this: if Tom made one hundred prayers a day, with a .5% return on those prayers, in about a years time (depending on what he prays for), Tom can amass enough answered prayers to rule the world.

God wants us happy and successful, but he doesn't want us to use prayer to amass selfish power so he reserves for himself the decision on which requests through prayer to answer and which to leave undone. One could even argue that God tries to help us as much as possible whether we pray for it or not, so asking for things in prayer might be pointless.

When Jesus taught us to pray, he said we should only ask God to provide our daily bread and forgive our sins. By "daily bread" he means we should ask God for the most basic things we need every day. God must answer those prayers because nearly all of us who were alive last week are still alive this week.

There are times, like famines and droughts, where our daily needs aren't met and people literally die from want. If you look at droughts and famines historically, they're almost always caused by human greed or stupidity. Even then, there's always actually been enough food and water to go around, just not enough people willing to share their excesses with those who have none.

One of the great criticisms of faith is that there's no correlation between how often good and bad stuff happens to people and how often they pray. That's absolutely true. You can pray your church doesn't get hit by an asteroid, but it won't change the odds that it might.

Prayer isn't a super power. Being faithful doesn't mean you'll get stuff while the rest of the world goes without. Faithful prayer means you recognize all the things we need come from God, even though he doesn't require us to recognize him before he provides for us.

You can pray to get stuff if you want, but remember God knows both your needs and your desires even before you do, and only he decides whether to help you with these things, or leave you to get them on your own, or even to keep them from you, and he does it whether you pray or not.

Jesus gives us several ideas on how and when and why to pray and they all make a lot of sense. In short, Jesus says we should keep prayer simple, private and modest. I don't see how you can go wrong with that plan.

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