I hate to admit it, but through much of my life, I tended to look upon prayer almost as though it were a scheme — a scheme to get God to give me the things I wanted.
My problem was that I couldn’t quite figure out how to work the scheme well enough. I kept thinking that if I learned to pray the right way, I would be able to get from God the things I wanted. I kept thinking that if I used the right phrases, or the right posture, or made the right promises to God, or confessed my sins remorsefully enough, or pleaded passionately enough, or paved the way with enough good deeds, or presented my requests often enough, or left it entirely in God’s hands without asking too often, or prayed in tongues, or trusted wholeheartedly enough, or got enough people praying with me, I would get the answers to prayer that I wanted.
I tended to look upon prayer as a tool which, if I learned to use it the right way, would enable me to get what I wanted out of God. I’m beginning to see prayer differently now — not as a tool to get something out of God, but as a gift to be enjoyed in growing closer to God. I am beginning to discover that the most vital nature of prayer is the intimacy of connection with God and how that shapes the person we can be.
Jeffrey D. Imbach puts it this way: “Prayer is essentially the expression of our heart longing for love. It is not so much the listing of our requests but the breathing of our own deepest request, to be united with God as fully as possible.”
Prayer, then, is an opportunity to bring our hearts and God’s heart together. In prayer we have the privilege of pouring out our hearts to God and of receiving God’s heart poured out to us. In such context, we discover what is actually in our own hearts and what is truly in the heart of God. C.S. Lewis remarks, “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real me who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’ …Only God Himself can let the bucket down to the depths in us…. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before; I never dreamed…’”
When prayer is understood in this way, it becomes less important whether or not we get the “things” we want. What becomes more important is that the heart of God is growing in us.
An anonymous writer shared this assessment of his “unanswered” prayers:
“I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do great things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of people; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for. Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.”■
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa.