Leading Question: In the context of our desire for revival and reformation, what is the role of prayer?
In terms of teaching us how to pray, Scripture is remarkably thin. Luke 11:1 records the disciples’ request to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” But Luke’s version which follows is incredibly brief, hardly a manual on prayer:
2 When you pray, say: “‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
There’s not a squeak about revival and reformation. And if we survey the actual prayers in Scripture, i.e. the psalms, nearly half of them are complaints. But here are several New Testament passages on prayer that can instruct us:
Matt. 6:7-8. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointedly says that the Father knows what we need before we ask him. So why ask? Presumably because of what it does to us or for us.
Luke 11:5-13. Even though Jesus says that the Father knows all our needs before we ask him, he still was emphatic that we should be tenacious in our praying. The midnight visitor keeps pestering his “friend” until he gets what he wants: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (vs.8, NIV).
Luke 18:1-8. In the parable of the unjust judge, the moral is the same as in the parable of the tenacious friend. In fact, in the preamble to the parable, Luke says the point of the parable is “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
Luke 18:9-14. The parable of the Pharisee and poor man highlights the great danger of “confident” prayer. The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t in need like the poor man; the poor man simply prayed that God would be merciful to him a sinner. The latter prayer was the one that Jesus commended.
Acts 1:12-14. In the upper room, the disciples and a number of the women “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” The day of Pentecost followed with thousands of conversions.
Phil. 4:4-7. Paul gives us another example of exuberant prayer: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God,” (vs. 6. NRSV). The result of this kind of prayer? “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (vs. 7, NRSV).
Modern writers may help us identify the danger of the wrong kind of prayer or no prayer at all. Ellen White wrote,
Those who do not learn every day in the school of Christ, who do not spend much time in earnest prayer, are not fit to handle the work of God in any of its branches, for if they do, human depravity will surely overcome them and they will lift up their souls unto vanity. – TM 169
On the eve of the nearly catastrophic 1901 General Conference, Ellen White urged the delegates: “Let every one of you go home, not to chat, chat, chat, but to pray. Go home and pray. Talk with God. Go home and plead with God to mold and fashion you after the divine similitude.” – GCB, April 3, 1901 par. 37
The result? Ellen White was euphoric:
“During the General Conference, the Lord wrought mightily for His people. Every time I think of that meeting, a sweet solemnity comes over me, and sends a glow of gratitude to my soul. We have seen the stately steppings of the Lord our Redeemer. We praise his holy name; for He has brought deliverance to His people. – Review and Herald, 26 November 1901, 761.
Finally, two quotations on prayer from C. S. Lewis. One is “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” from Poems (1964), p. 129; cited in Chad Walsh, The Visionary Christian, p. 30:
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
The other C. S. Lewis quotation forms the conclusion of his essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer” in his collection of essays, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 3-11:
Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.
It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”
Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, be-[10-11] yond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle. – WLN 10-11
In sum, when we most certain that God is on our side, we may be most vulnerable to arrogance and thus we can actually undermine the whole purpose of prayer.