Hard Talk

Pointless Praying

Is there any point in praying? ‘Of course there is’ most will answer – and to doubt it would lead to calls of ‘heretic’ – at least in most evangelical and charismatic circles! But I am not so sure. Not sure in this sense – that the relevance of prayer, never mind its effectiveness in not unconditional. Hold on to that for a moment and we will come back to it.

Some years ago a revivalist from another culture visited a village on the Isle of Skye where I live. He whipped up the local christians to meet in the early hours of the morning for revival prayer meetings. Most of those attending went to work after these early morning vigils – while the revivalist returned to his bed. Eventually the man moved on with no visibly change having taken place. I remember asking a close christian friend and working man who had attended, what the meetings had done for him. He replied – “Made me very tired”.

I have read, over the years, a plethora of books on prayer – mostly because I was acutely aware of my weakness in this area of christian living . I have betimes followed praying plans – kept certain times of prayer and attended seminars on the subject. For the most part, after many months and indeed  sometimes years, I have simply ended up feeling guilty that my prayer life was never up to par. These days I have swapped guilt for rest – plain and simple. I know some will frown and others condemn – but for me that’s the truth – although I’m sure you could still easily make me feel guilty about it!

But I suspect that prayer, born out of guilt, is not real prayer. Some may be called to extraordinary prayer – but that is a calling and may not be for others – however much we cajole, manipulate and berate them. Which leads to another controversial question – what is prayer anyway?

Since childhood I have heard people praying and attended hundreds of ‘Prayer Meetings’. Let me ask you a question – have you ever attended an exciting prayer meeting? And by that I mean a prayer meeting where the power of God is flowing and those participating are really in touch with heaven. I’m happy for you if you have – but if your experience is anything like mine these times are very rare. I personally can remember only a handful – and that’s in 62 years! That I can remember them vividly, one stretching back to my teenage years, says something! I am not judging what we call normal praying in the context of a  ‘prayer meeting’ – but from where I am sitting much of what I have heard has appeared to be only words – sometimes repeated week by week, month by month with as much passion as .. well you get my drift. In fact I think we have become so used to mediocrity, if we can even call it that, in prayer, that I strongly suspect many have never experienced real praying at all, in public prayer anyway. I remember as clearly as yesterday the first time I consciously heard a man touching heaven in prayer. I was a teenager – the man was a Russian and could not speak a word on English – but he prayed on a level I had never heard before. The experience had a strong emotional and lasting effect on me.

I have come to the conclusion that emphasising the priority of prayer, without an equal emphasis on what we might call ‘godliness’ can in fact lead to deception. I have known people who pray  for the renewal and revival of the church but just as easily lie, cheat and live dishonestly in the eyes of the world. Yet – if we listen to some leaders and preachers, all such a person must do to be blessed more is to pray more.

But back to my initial question – is there any point in praying? ‘Try Praying’ says the banner to be seen in many churches and even on billboards in some of our cities. Good advice! And to be sure God hears the cry of the broken heart – he says so. But there are situations where God, although no doubt hearing prayer on one level – at another does not. Again he says so, very explicitly (Jeremiah 7:16/11:14).

It becomes apparent from the bible that God’s hearing of prayers is on more than one level. He is omniscient – he knows and hears everything – but he can choose not to hear –

“When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.”

Isaiah 1:15 (NLT)

Conversely the angel could say to Zachariah –

“Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John.”

Luke 1:13 (MSG)

It appears then, at face value, prayer, to be worth anything must be aligned, at least for the professing believer, with godly character. To have any effect prayer must come from a humble and a clean heart. If not, such prayers are simply empty words. Even then the answer to ones prayer may be ‘no’, ‘not yet’ or a simple silence which leaves one sometimes frustrated, unsure or even wondering if your prayers have been heard at all! Such is the mystery and frustration of prayer – at least in my experience.

And yet, at its most basic level, prayer is as natural for the child of God as breathing. As natural as a child speaking with his father or mother. I think the best description of prayer I have ever come across is found in the words of the hymn written by the Ayrshire poet James Montgomery. I still desperately need to repeat the last five words!

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters heav’n with prayer.

The Saints in prayer appear as one
In word and deed and mind,
While with the Father and the Son
Their fellowship they find.

No prayer is made on earth alone:
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus at the Father’s throne
For sinners intercedes.

O thou by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way!
The path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray.

James Montgomery, 1771-1854

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