Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Purpose of Prayer

This post dates back to August 10, 2005, and continued my series (reproduced previously here) attacking the Word of Faith movement. Five years and a graduate degree in theology later, I've even less respect and time for the "Faith" movement now than I did back then, and that wasn't much. As John said of another group of outright heretics, such are deceivers and antichrists, and as they do not abide in the teaching of Christ, show that they do not have God. I hope this is beneficial still today.

What is prayer for?

Many Christians seem to regard prayer as a religious formula for getting what they want. The Word-Faith movement, in particular, views prayer as a formula to "make real" personal desires for health, wealth, and happiness. To a Word-Faith believer, prayer is essentially a spiritual "order form" where you "speak into existence" those things you want or need - provided, of course, that you have strong enough faith and that you don't "cancel" the process by making a "negative confession."

This is a very self-centred way to look at prayer. Assuredly, that is not how God looks at prayer.

Even many orthodox Christians don't have a disciplined prayer life. I have to confess that I personally have a lot to work on in this area, as well. Many of us find ourselves swept away by the cares and concerns of worldly life, and remember to pray only when things go wrong or we begin to worry. Consequently, we often treat prayer as a "Batphone" to call for help. Sadly, I've noticed that in my own prayer life, I often fall into this trap.

So what is a Biblical view of prayer and its purpose?

Consider the Lord’s prayer. How does it start? "Pray then like this: 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'" (Matthew 6:9-10)

Look also how Christ starts His great prayer in John 17:1-5: When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed."

The first thing Jesus does in these prayers is to praise and glorify God: "hallowed be your name," "that the Son may glorify you." Now, consider the words of Paul: "To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

The first purpose of prayer is the same as our first purpose in life: to glorify God! Any request in prayer that does not have God and His glory as its object cannot be described as a prayer of faith. Look at Hezekiah’s prayer in 2 Kings 19 – in verse 19, he prays: "So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone." God answered Hezekiah’s prayer, and the result – the destruction of the Assyrian forces – glorified God, not Hezekiah.

There are other purposes for prayer: to grow closer with God, to express our feelings to Him, to intercede for others, etc. Ultimately, all these things, properly done, glorify God. And so, if we are to ask God to listen favourably to our prayers, we must first ensure that they have God’s glorification as their object. Ask yourself: "Will what I’m asking God for glorify and increase God and His Kingdom, or is it primarily for my own benefit?"

I don't mean "ask for things that glorify God - because it'll make Him more inclined to say yes." Trying to "glorify" God as a means to our own ends is still selfishness - and that doesn't glorify God in anyway. No, God's glory is an end in itself. God doesn't have to give to be glorified - our honour for Him is NEVER bought, it is demanded by His holiness. We should humbly pray, asking that God be glorified, and know that even if He doesn't give what we request, He is still glorified in our humility before and dependence upon Him.

So what about God’s reasons for rejecting our requests? Is it only because of our own failings that He says no?

Previously, we looked at lack of faith and sin in people's lives in relation to prayer. We saw that even prayers of people of great faith are sometimes turned down, and calamities befall people who didn't do anything to directly deserve it.

So, what of God’s sovereignty?

God said to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." (Romans 9:15 - see Exodus 33:19) Paul also notes that "So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." (Romans 9:18) In his rebuke of Job (Job 38-41) God speaks of His sovereign power, proclaiming that He alone rules the earth and that Job, a mere man, has no place to question Him. Job’s response is very instructive: "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." (Job 42:2-3)

The overwhelming testimony of Scripture speaks of a Sovereign, Almighty God who answers to no one, who rules the earth, heavens and everything within them unquestionably and absolutely, who causes to happen whatever He wills, who cannot be thwarted, and to whom we owe everything. Our prayers to Him are worship.

And if prayer is worship, as indeed our whole lives are called to be worship, then there can be no entitlement - save only God's entitlement to our prayers and worship. Prayer is never, ever a demand or claim. Demands and claims assume that the one who demands or claims somehow has a "right" to what he seeks. A demand presumes one's entitlement to what is demanded. And what are we entitled to? What do we have, that God did not give us? What could we possibly deserve from God? In what way is He indebted to us?

Again, God owes us one thing, and one thing only: judgment and eternal punishment for our sinfulness. The only reason he spares some from their deserved fate is because of His love and mercy, through Christ's sacrifice at the Cross.

God owns us, and is entitled to do what he wills with us (Romans 9:19-21), and we have no place to question God’s purposes.

Therefore, God reserves the right to say "no" without explaining why. We may never know why He does not answer prayers that seem perfectly reasonable and God-honouring to us. But that is His sovereign prerogative. To deny that – to state that God must give us what we ask for, as long as we ask it properly – is to deny His Lordship over us. That is rebellion, and that is blasphemous.

Our hope and assurance is rooted in God’s perfection, and in the perfection of His will. God’s plan is perfect, and so we can trust Him that no matter what, God "works all things according to the counsel of his will." (Ephesians 1:11)

(Jeff Jones)