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. And perhaps phrases such as these are accepted as niceties, the trimmings of polite discourse.
But real prayer, genuine prayer, is very different from wishing. On the surface, they may be indistinguishable, but beneath the veneer of vernacular, there is something profoundly different between the two human behaviors.
Wishing has no basis beyond the individual. It is not, in this sense, relational. In other words, it has nothing to do with a divine-human relationship. And because of that, is has no grounds for definitive change (for God has exhaustive control over all things). 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 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 is critical, as we’ll see in a minute.
Praying, in the biblical sense, is quite different, for almost all of the opposite reasons. Prayer is a unique occurrence of what I call communion behavior. It has personal, relational gravity, for it is offered by human persons to the God who is three divine persons in one essence. Both human persons and the tripersonal God have purposes to achieve in the world, the former being subservient in all respects to the latter. The purposes of the sovereign, tripersonal God simply will be fulfilled. But that God has also told us to pray and express our own purposes, our own desires or requests or laments or pleas. 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, 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. That’s one of the many reasons why language is so very important to reality.
Yet, praying is not simply an expression of our desires within the context of a divine-human relationship. Our desires themselves must be shaped by that relationship. That is why Christians throughout history and all over the world have held to “the good book.” 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. 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 into the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). So, God not only governs and sustains everything in the world; he also governs and sustains our personal development, from the inside out. God changes not just the world in which we live but also the character and longings of every human heart.
So, Why Pray?
The natural question for most skeptics is, “Then why pray at all? If God is sovereign over everything, then he’s going to do what he wants regardless of whether we pray or not!” The 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 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.
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. That desire is a good one, and something that all Christians should be quick to reply to: they will! 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.
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.”
See, 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.
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. 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 does, in fact, take action.
That, my friends, is why I pray. It’s also why I don’t wish.
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