Most people say they pray. Even among those who don’t connect with a religious tradition or even believe in God, a fair number still say they pray. For some, prayer is like a purchase we make. We ask God to fill a need in return for our promise to be good, or at least better. For some, God is a therapist, listening to our rage or pain, and providing comfort in return. For some, prayer is an obligation we must meet to stay in God’s good graces. Still others offer prayers because they feel helpless and don’t know what else to do. There is nothing wrong with any of these prayers. The psalms (the prayerbook of the Bible) show us a broad variety of prayers spoken in gratitude, despair, lament, confession, and praise.
For me, after long years of praying when I was sure no one was listening; praying because I felt I needed to; praying to know how to pray, I encountered a pastor who, at the beginning of the worship service, would ask, “What and who should we pray for today?” Someone said, “Pray for Jim, because he is ill.” The pastor said, “Got it. Now, who is going to be the answer to that prayer?” He then waited until people began to offer Jim some help. That is when I first realized that prayer was not about getting God to do something; nor was it about passively putting things in God’s mystical hands. If I was going to pray, I had to be praying that I was somehow the answer to the prayer.
Pope Francis has said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” The reason that people are hungry is not because God has not supplied enough food. It is because we are so wasteful and self-centered in the way we distribute God’s bounty. The answer to this prayer is me, and you. Prayer for the hungry is a means of opening my eyes to see like God sees; to care like God cares. Prayer is a means of making God’s love real in my life as I answer my own prayer. Soren Kierkegaard says, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” When Jesus teaches us to pray “your will be done, on earth as in heaven” it also means “your will be done,” in me.
Prayer is not a demand we make on an object (God) to do something. Prayer is acknowledging that God has made me in the divine image, and so dwells in me. God has made me with all that exists and is all around me. The image of God gets painted over by many things that lead to not feeding the hungry, not caring for the sick, not acting to right a wrong. Praying to God is to get in touch with the image of love, hope, and peace that is already in us. The goal of prayer is to move beyond doing what obviously seems good to deeper expressions of the image of God. That may lead me in prayer to come face to face with a way in which I am in fact part of the problem and call me to deeper action. Prayer is what roots me in the grace of being beyond me so it can work on me and nurture me to fuller expression of the image of God. Prayer is always more about what it does to us than what it does to God.
Prayer opens me up to see what I don't see, love what I can't love, go where I don't want to, and help when I have so many excuses not to do so. Go deep in prayer and you may find God is already answering the prayer, and that answer is you.
Tim Olson, Lead Pastor