In popular parlance, “prayer” is synonymous with well-wishing. No one has to conduct a study to conclude that of the millions of people who say “our prayers are with you,” less than 1% actually utter a word. Such phrases are accepted as niceties, the trimmings of polite discourse. But genuine Christian prayer is very different from wishing. On the surface, they may be indistinguishable, but beneath the veneer of vernacular, there’s something we can’t miss.
Let’s start with wishing.Wishing has no basis beyond the individual. It is not, in this sense, relational. In other words, it has little to do with a divine-human relationship, or even with a human relationship. It’s a personal yearning without any backing for action or change. And because of that, is has no grounds for really doing anything other than expressing what’s inside us.
I can wish for a heatwave to end, for the Seventy-Sixers to win tomorrow night, or for my favorite snack to be on sale at the grocery store. Nothing in these wishes is consciously bound up with (1) a trusting relationship that I maintain with God or, therefore, (2) an actual change in the world he governs. A wish is a free, unbound desire. It is directed at no one and relies on nothing for fulfillment. Because wishing is not relational, it is also not shaped by relationship, and that’s critical. Wishing is not shaped or formed by someone else. It’s an internal movement of the heart toward something you want.
Praying, in the biblical sense, is quite different, for almost all of the opposite reasons. Prayer is a unique occurrence of what we could call communion behavior (for more on this, see The Speaking Trinity, p. 133-134). It’s an act of communing with or drawing closer to other persons, specifically the divine persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both human persons and the divine persons of the Godhead have purposes to achieve in the world, but the former are subservient in all respects to the latter. That’s one of the key differences between wishing and praying. Wishes are not directly formed and shaped by someone else; they’re internal. But prayers are shaped and even generated by the revealed will of the tripersonal God. In that sense, we don’t just pray for anything.
We could in theory “pray” for a heatwave to end or for the Seventy-Sixers to win, but those prayers would have to be situated within God’s revealed will in Scripture. We’d have to link the ending of a heatwave, for instance, to God’s will of caring for his people (1 Pet. 5:7). Prayers are magnetized to the will of God; they aren’t free-floating specs of desire drifting through the atmosphere.
Now, it’s worth pausing for a moment to talk about purpose.The purposes of the sovereign, tripersonal God simply will be fulfilled. But this God has also told us to pray and express our own purposes within his guidance (Luke 18:1; Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:17), our own desires or requests or laments or pleas in light of who God is and what he’s promised to do. And God, in some mysterious sense, accounts for those purposes in his comprehensive will. He engages with us as the personal God, and yet he does not change. He ordains change through our prayer, as John Frame put it, but he himself does not change. His purposes, set forth in eternity past, roll out unrivaled on the landscape of human history. But we are nevertheless called to use language to engage with him as creatures made in his speaking image. We were made to speak with him. That’s one of the many reasons why language is so very important to reality. Our prayers matter because that’s how God has planned redemption to work—through words. His words, from eternity and throughout history, have fully accounted for our words.
Yet, our words of prayer should be shepherded and shaped by God’s. The Bible, amidst the winding narrative of Old Testament Israel and the formation of the nascent Christian church, has much in it that should shape our prayers. It shapes what we long for, what we hate, what we show gratitude for, what we rejoice in, what we think about (Phil. 4:8-9). The Bible doesn’t just promote change; it changes us, so that we promote the sort of change we read about. We read the Bible to read change into the world. And Christians believe that it is the work of God himself to change us and shape us to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). God not only governs and sustains everything in the world; he also governs and sustains our personal development in prayer, from the inside out. He changes the character and longings of every human heart.
So, Why Pray?
Still, the natural question for most skeptics is, “Why pray? If God is sovereign over everything, then he’s going to do what he wants regardless of whether we pray or not!” That question should really be turned around: If God isn’t sovereign over everything, then why should we pray? God’s sovereignty is what makes prayer effective. Who would want to waste time praying to a God who only might be able to do something about it? We can’t have both absolute personal freedom and an absolute personal God. There is room in the cosmos only for one absolute, and that’s God himself. If you reject that, then yes, prayer would certainly seem ridiculous. If you accept it, you also accept with gratitude and joy that God has given your words a place in his plan.
Now, I may not have sufficiently addressed the skeptics, but look at what is beneath the skeptics’ question. If the notion of a sovereign God seems to crush the purpose of prayer, we might pause and ask what the skeptic really wants. The answer, for some, is that they want to know that their prayers have an actual effect on the course of history, on their everyday life. They want to know that their prayers matter. That desire is a good one, and something that all Christians should be quick to reply to: they do matter! Prayers have an effect on the world, but that effect is not isolated from God. Indeed, it can never be, because this is God’s world. God has ordained change through prayer, and yet he himself never changes.
Think of it this way, as my friend once put it, “the Christian’s relationship to God is like that of a little child to a kind Father. The Father wants his child to ask him for help. He intends to meet all the desires of his child’s heart. But he will answer the child’s requests according to his own wisdom, not the child’s — and therefore all the more lavishly” (John Frame, Christianity Considered, pp. 87–88). Did you get that last part? “All the more lavishly.”
It’s not the case that God doesn’t want to address your desires and wishes. It’s that he wants to do more than that, more than you can possibly understand with a finite (and broken) mind. This is the God who doesn’t just want to give us “good things.” He wants to shape us to the image of his own Son! Could anything be better or greater than that? We often lose sight of this grand purpose of God when we pray. But keeping it in mind might help alleviate some frustrations and build our patience in the Spirit. We can pray and know that, regardless of whether or not God answers our prayer in the way we long for him to, God is going to be faithful in shaping us to himself.
So, while wishing does not extend beyond the individual, praying does. In fact, prayer extends to the God who has exhaustive control over all things and has a foreordained plan to use the words we utter. That means that when we pray, we have grounds for believing that there will be definitive change in our lives: and the grounds are God himself! If God is sovereign and yet personally engaging with each of us as we dialogue with him, we should not just be open to the chance that God might act. We should be convinced that he will. We may not be able to perceive the act, but we must trust that God always takes action.
That, my friends, is why I pray. It’s also why I don’t wish.
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