Why Pray?
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Why Pray?

"You do not have, because you do not ask God" (James 4:2). "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16).

By John David Hicks

"Prayer does not make any difference," was the atheistic professor's thesis at the University of California at Berkeley. He would prove it scientifically. The study would focus on people who had suffered a heart attack. After a person received emergency care at San Francisco area hospitals, doctors would ask: "Is anyone praying for you?"

After more than 2,000 interviews, more than 80 percent of the people who said that someone was praying for them recovered more quickly than those who said no one was praying for them. The professor was upset and reworded the question. Again, more than 80 percent of the people who said people were praying for them recovered more quickly than those who said no one was praying for them.

On a TV talk show, the professor said he did not believe in prayer until this study, and he defined prayer as sending out good, kind, loving "vibes" into the air. If the whole world would contemplate and think "peace," he said, we would have peace.

"But how do you explain that more than 80 percent of the people who say that someone was praying for them got better quicker than those who said no one was praying for them?" the show's host asked.

"I don't know," replied the professor. "All I know is, if I ever have a heart attack, I would want all the people out there to pray for me!"

When you see the value of prayer, you will pray as you ought.

Based on God's grace and mercy, prayer is God's invitation to ask for help. "Call to me," the Lord says, "and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know" (Jeremiah 33:3). Note the command to call, to ask. Go to the sovereign of the universe, the source of everything, and talk to Him. He promises to answer.

You know that God answers prayer, but many Christians don't live like it. Their lives are full of worry, fret, and hostility. They seem content to live by their puny power.

God alone understands your helplessness and stupidity. But His destiny for you is beyond anything you understand. "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you" (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

The apostle James talks about prayer in his epistle. He says that prayer honors God because trust, faith, and action are born out of the relationship of dependence. Early church tradition claims that James was called "camel knees" because of the calluses on his knees from praying so much. James gives us three reasons we should pray:

First, prayer arises from trouble and problems and builds a relationship with God. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4). "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray" (James 5:13).

Instead of seeking to avoid difficult situations, James says we should welcome testing for the positive results it can bring. The Phillips translation says that when problems and trials come "don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends." Why? They can make you stronger and purer, producing perseverance and character.

Have you watched an athlete in training? A sprinter adds weights to his legs; a weight lifter keeps adding more weights. The added weights increase strength and endurance. Similarly, the difficulties, hardships, and struggles of sorrows, trouble, disappointments, misfortune, and suffering can enable us to become stronger Christians.

Through more training, your character will be more mature and complete. It will be perfected by your experiences, made more into the image of Christ. You will not be lacking anything, having "everything [you] need for life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). God is in control and you get to see Him work in your behalf. This "pure joy" is not for the trials but for the confident realization that God's plans for you are good. God will put you into circumstances beyond your control so He can "answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know" (Jeremiah 33:3 NKJV).

God is in control of this world and He wants you to trust Him when things get rough. In prayer you come to God not only with your big problems, but about everything. Many people will not come to God until they are at their wit's end. Paul says, "In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6). Will you trust God with your problems? With all the situations of your life? With your finances? With your tithe? With troubled people? With the car that won't start in the morning? With the flat tire on the way home?

At the last supper, Jesus said to His disciples, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Oswald Chambers in Biblical Ethics says: "The essential meaning of prayer is that it nourishes the life of the Son of God in me and enables Him to manifest Himself in my mortal flesh." You are closest to God in times of trouble, for this is when deep relationships are built. Your love and faith are perfected. You have learned to "Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you" (Psalm 55:22). The heart of prayer is to know God. Prayer is the only way to communion with God. His passion and values can come no other way.

I once struggled with guilt over my prayerlessness. I knew that I needed to pray, but it was hard to find time. I'd rush in to church Sunday morning, pray a quick prayer and ask forgiveness, and promise to pray more. Next Sunday the same thing. But there came a time when I had a fresh encounter with Jesus. At about the same time I attended the "Change the World School of Prayer." A new power and freedom came into my ministry, and a new desire to pray.

After six months, I began to settle back into the old rut. The desire and enthusiasm were gone. I read books, preached on prayer, and attended the prayer seminar again. Nothing happened. Then I sought Jesus and everything changed. I had sought prayer and duty and missed Jesus. It was then that I realized that God does not give us impersonal things like prayer, power, victory, or service. He gives us a relationship with Jesus. Instead of seeking a prayer life, seek Jesus. The prayer life comes out of the relationship.

Second, prayer refines my motives and builds my character. "You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:2-3).

The first law of prayer is, "Ask God." God will answer prayer. He answered prayer for Daniel when he prayed for the nation to be freed from Babylonian captivity. He answered Samuel when he prayed for Saul and victory over the enemy. Paul would reach the nations, but he had to ask. Even Jesus had to ask in prayer. Psalm 2:8 refers to Christ: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession." If God did not relax the law of prayer for the prophets, apostles, and Jesus, you too must ask in prayer.

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray..." (Matthew 6:8-9). But if God knows our needs already, why pray? For love's sake you need to express your need and dependence upon God. This is the heart of prayer, intimacy with God. Like a trusting child who asks for bread and knows he will not get a stone, the Christian comes to God knowing his needs will be provided for.

James says that for your prayers to get through, your desires must be submitted to God. William Barclay comments: "James is stating before his people a basic question-Whether it is your aim in life to submit to the will of God, or to gratify your own desires for the pleasures of this world? And his warning is that, if pleasure is the policy of life, then nothing but strife and hatred and division can possibly follow.... The ultimate choice in life lies between pleasing oneself and pleasing God."

Frustrated desires, the pull of the world, and the deceit of Satan will damage your character. Things can not satisfy. We learn that as children when the thing we desire-a new bicycle or a doll-can't make us happy. What we wanted is not what we really needed. True contentment comes out of a deep relationship with God. War and fighting come from the desire for money, glory, or pleasure. These cravings cause people to "kill and covet," says James. In the church this comes out as verbal abuse, jealousy, and self-seeking.

But prayer will refine your motives, imparting to you the love and compassion God has for broken and hurting people. Come to God just as you are-messed up, with mixed motives, with love on one side and resentments on the other; giving versus selfishness and faith versus unbelief. You came to God because of His love, mercy, and grace for you. Time and struggles will refine you, teaching you that you will never truly get your act together. Paul said in Philippians 3:12, "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." You may never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough to pray rightly. Yet, God receives and accepts you just as you are.

A few years ago my three-year-old granddaughter made me a birthday card. It wasn't a Hallmark. The picture was fuzzy; the writing was scribbled. But it came from Emily's heart and it touched me. I loved it and cherished it.

In the same way a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer when it comes from your heart. Start with your needs and wants. Share your concerns and make your petitions: The problems at work or with that neighbor. Ask for food, clothing, protection, healing, justice, a change in weather. Then ask for a loved one or friend to become a Christian, that God would bring people and circumstances into their lives.

Prayer reveals the true condition of your heart. This is as it should be. And this is when God begins to work with you, cleansing your motives and building your character. But "self-centered prayer" is the essential starting place. C. S. Lewis counsels, "Lay before God what is in you, not what ought to be in you." Be real with God. Share your needs, wants, concerns, your-self! Over time, the relationship will bring you into true prayer. When God becomes "real" to you, people and things become shadows. In a true relationship, a lover's focus is not centered on himself but on his beloved.

The world looks at prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves and advancing ourselves. But the scriptural objective of prayer is to develop the life of God in you, His will, His love, His holiness, and His redemption. The foundation of prayer is not human earnestness, need, or will power, but a cross. It cost God the agony of redemption to enable us to pray. We have bold-ness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus. This is why Jesus said to pray in His "name"-in His nature.

When prayer is neglected, spiritual decline follows. Prayer is the means by which God's grace, mercy, and power are brought to bear on your tribulations, difficulties, and evils of life. Jesus put the greatest importance on prayer. "Most assuredly, I say to you," He said to His disciples, "he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (John 14:12-14 NKJV).

Prayer is a discipline that is voluntarily entered into, not for your sake alone, but for God's as well. This disciplined commitment comes from a passion for His presence, a persistent desire to do His will, and total obedience to God and His word. If prayer is not easy, we become sidetracked. If it is an effort, we are tempted to abandon it altogether. Discipline will accomplish in you what laziness would destroy. No amount of praying for hours or days at a time will make up for your lack of praying daily.

To strengthen your prayer life, you must have a time and place set aside for communion with God and study of His word. This is a time to humble yourself before Him in thanksgiving and praise. Delight yourself in worship until there is joy in His presence.

There are a few practical things I have learned over the years that have helped me in my prayer life. If your mind wanders, it helps your concentration to pray aloud. If you are sleepy, walk and pray. If things to do come to mind, write them down so you can do them later. Keep a prayer journal, recording your prayer requests and God's answers to prayer. Over the years, this will be a tremendous faith-building exercise. Ask the Lord what He has to say to you. Wait and let Him talk. Let the Lord bring people and needs to your mind and let Him guide your prayers. Pray for the worldwide church, particularly in places where it is persecuted. But the thing to do is to start and be faithful. You learn to pray by praying.

Third, prayer makes you righteous and has powerful results in your world. "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops" (James 5:16-18).

A righteous person is in right relationship with God and wants what God wants. This righteousness is by faith. In prayer you assimilate the nature and righteousness of God by absorbing more and more of His mind. Thus, the real battle of prayer is in lack of intimacy with God's character as revealed in the Bible. Disciplined seeking is the cure. Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8).

Real prayer then is a relationship. Jesus' prayer life was one of communion with God, not a duty or ritual. Prayer, like love, grows in a relationship with God. God's overwhelming love invites our response. Real prayer and communion with God come from the relationship of knowing Him and falling in love with Him. Outside of the relationship, you will tend to make prayer a duty, a service to be rendered.

The results of prayer are much greater than you ever dreamed were possible! "Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Ephesians 3:20-21 NKJV). I once made a sign for my prayer closet: "Whose life shall I change, and what circumstances shall I influence today with my prayers!" James says you have not because you don't pray. God answers prayer.

Though a weak human being, Elijah honored and sought God. During his life, Israel had evil, idolatrous rulers, Ahab and Jezebel. God sent a drought to punish the nation. For three and a half years, it did not rain. Then, when Elijah prayed, it rained! Baal's altars were destroyed, Ahab and Jezebel were defeated and overthrown, and the nation turned back to God.

Prayer is the key to the kingdom of God and the spiritual dimension. Remember that we are in spiritual warfare, as Paul re-minds us in Ephesians 6. Prayer is the source of power and authority in the life of the believer.

According to Paul Billheimer in Destined for the Throne, our prayer life determines our place of rulership in God's kingdom. Jesus' victory on the cross won the legal right and authority over all that was lost in the fall. Satan is defeated. But God has given the enforcing of this victory over Satan to His church, to you and me. Satan will not give up any of his rights or authority until the church enforces Jesus' victory.

To illustrate: Suppose a policeman, with authority to enforce the law, sees a car speeding recklessly down your street, en-dangering the lives of others. But the cop is in a good mood that afternoon and does not try to stop the driver. What's wrong? The policeman has the authority and can even call for help, but he has chosen not to use his authority. That is what most Christians are doing. We are sitting by the side of the road, enjoying the afternoon, and not using our authority. We should be going against the "gates of hell" and setting the captives free.

The prayer of the weakest Christian who walks in the Spirit is a terror to the devil and his demons. The powers of darkness are terrified by your prayers. No wonder the devil does all he can to keep you from prayer. "The one concern of the devil," says Samuel Chadwick, "is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work and prayer-less religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray."

Just as a fountain cannot rise higher than its source, you cannot rise above your prayer life. Prayer is the source that gives you your ability, strength, and power. This is also true of the church. No church will be greater than its corporate prayer life. And no prayer life will rise above your praise and worship life. Praise enthrones the Lord over all your problems and paves the way for His deliverance. Thus, prayer is the main business of the kingdom and is the way God runs His kingdom. "His kingdom rules over all." Consequently, prayer is spiritual warfare because this is where the battle is won.

Nowhere in the Bible is prayer a gift requiring no effort. It is a calling-to be priests unto God; an invitation to rulership in the kingdom of God. This goes with James 4:7, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." The devil is lawless, wicked, and does not play fair. Jesus said the devil is a liar and out to kill and destroy you (John 10:10). He will try to get the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lust of things to enter in, robbing you of your fellow-ship and faith. He knows that your prayers make a difference.

Prayer releases God's Spirit into action. That's why James 4:2 says, "You do not have, because you do not ask God." E. M. Bounds said, "God shapes the world by prayer. The prayers of God's saints are the capital stock of heaven by which God carries on His great work upon earth."

God has redeemed you, made you His child and a co-heir with Christ. You are to be seated with Christ on the throne of the universe as His bride and companion. "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne" (Revelation 3:21). "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:6-7).

Prayer is the call of God into fellowship and relationship. Because God loves you, He enjoys you and wants to be with you. As His child, you are made in His image and He loves you. He wants you to be aware of His presence. He has given you His word, "I will never leave you or forsake you."

A pastor took his wife and two-year-old son to the market. The child was fussing, and the father tried everything he could think of to quiet his son. Finally, holding his son close to his chest, he began to sing an impromptu love song to the boy. "I'm so glad you're my boy, you make me happy.... I like the way you laugh." The song did not rhyme and was off key, but the little boy calmed down. Back in the car on the way home, he said, "Sing again to me, Daddy! Sing again to me!"

Prayer is like that! God is taking us into His arms, holding us close and singing His love song over us. Prayer transforms us, because it is a conversion of the heart.