prayingA few years back I was eating lunch at the student union with the resident leader on campus of the cult known as CARP. He and I were having an interesting discussion about some of our differing beliefs, as you can well imagine. I was explaining to him that I believed in salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and not by any sort of works or ordinances. As I was talking, I could see that something was bothering him, so much so that he did not appear to be listening to what I was saying. When I stopped speaking he paused for a moment, then blurted out, “Does that mean you don’t believe in prayer?”

That gave me a pause, I can tell you. I quickly replied, “No, no, I do believe in prayer.” I was surprised that he would make such a connection. When I said that I do not believe in performing ordinances, I certainly was not including prayer among them. After all, prayer is not an ordinance, but is just talking to God, right?

Well, at least that’s the way it is in my mind. But I’m not so sure that it isn’t an ordinance, a mere religious observance, in the minds of many, even among those whom we would think of as evangelical Christians. It is so easy to fall into the trap of concentrating on the act of doing something rather than the real purpose of it.

An excellent example is a story I heard on Christian radio the other day. The DJ was telling about a movement in some farming community…I don’t remember where. The pastor of a certain congregation wanted to convince his laymen of the effectiveness of prayer. So he took a batch of seeds and divided it between two pots. Then he prayed for the seeds in one of the pots, but did not pray for the seeds in the other one. According to the story, the “blessed” batch of seeds grew much better than the “unblessed” batch. The congregation of farmers, intrigued by this, listened to the pastor’s idea to start a prayer chain of people praying for one another’s needs, both crops and other things. This was lauded by the DJ as people getting a true idea of the power of prayer, and banding together in prayer as they ought to be doing. His comment on the “blessed” seeds growing better than the other ones was, “Isn’t that just affirming what we as Christians should have known already?”

This whole mindset and approach to prayer bothered me. I guess I could see this pastor, hands spread over the seeds in the one pot (but not the other), mumbling some sort of prayer like it was a magic spell to cast upon the seeds. In fact, that is just about exactly what he was doing…he was “casting” prayer! Is this right? Is this the way we should approach prayer…as some sort of powerful spell that we as Christians have the right to cast? Just because we have prayed for something, does that mean that it is “blessed,” as if we had cast God’s favor upon it by praying for it?

I have heard many sermons and so forth in which the speaker seems to indicate that God has a whole bunch of blessings He’s just waiting to bestow upon us, and if we would just pray more He’d be pouring them out upon us. Other speakers I’ve heard suggest (or seem to suggest) that all the problems we’re having in our country and all the godlessness we’re witnessing every day could be solved if God’s people would just pray more. And I wonder, is that really true?

Now maybe I was a spoiled kid, but I always received lots of things from my parents. All through my childhood years and well into my college years as well they not only provided me with room and board, but also with many gifts which were above and beyond anything which they would have been required to give me. I often asked for these things, but I wonder, what would happen if I had stopped asking my parents for anything? If I stopped asking them for money or clothes or food, would they have stopped providing these things for me? My answer to this is no! These are not things that my parents gave me just because I asked for them… grudgingly, and wishing they didn’t have to. My parents gave me these things because they loved me, and wished to help me through my early years. And if they’ve spoiled me somewhat by providing all these things to me they’ve nevertheless done it because it is what they’ve determined that they want to do to help me. And I gladly received their gifts, and sometimes asked them for things when I needed them. But I know it is not my asking which caused them to give these things to me. And I know that if I had stopped asking them for things they would not have stopped giving them to me.

In the same way, I cannot imagine that God would stop giving good things to me His child merely because I stopped asking for them. Does God have no concern for our country? Does He not wish to give good gifts to all His children? I know of times when He has given me good things that I did not ask for…perhaps did not even know of ahead of time to ask for them! This is the way it is with a loving parent or a loving God.

Do I mean that we shouldn’t take our requests before God? No, of course not! But we do not take them before Him to make Him aware of them, or to insure our “piece of the pie,” or that we will receive our fair share of blessings from Him. Can it be that we’ve forgotten that prayer is merely talking to One Whom we love? This is what it seems like when we pray in this manner! We seem to think that if we will pray more and more, we will have more and more blessings from God. We seem to think that our whole problem is that we don’t pray enough. The power of prayer can be unlocked by doing it more and more! But this is not the true nature of prayer.

I’ve heard missionaries say things like “someone must have been praying” at one time or another because God protected them in a situation or did something for them. Others said that they “became aware of how dependent we are on prayer,” or something like that. Now I hate to say anything against missionaries. I have a deep respect for them, and feel that they have made a sacrifice that is most impressive, and that I would no doubt be reluctant to make! But if they seriously think that God would not help them in difficult situations, or would have little to do with them and their efforts if no one were praying for them…well, I think that these people have a wrong idea about what God is all about! If God has helped them in difficult situations, then it is because God was watching over them in that moment, not just because someone happened to be praying for them at that time! God’s love and care is not a mystic power that must be unlocked by prayer!!!

I am reminded of one time when I was talking to a young man who was a Christian, and for some reason prayer came up. He said that God only answers the prayers of believers. I responded that that was not necessarily so. I pointed out to him the passage about the Legion of demons whom Christ cast out, and how they begged Him not to send them out completely, but to allow them to enter into a herd of pigs that was nearby. Christ granted their request and allowed them to enter the pigs. (Matthew 8:28-34) So I pointed out to this young man that Christ had answered the prayer of these demons by allowing them to go into the pigs. He responded that he didn’t think he would define that as prayer.

Not define that as prayer! This was a group of demons talking to Christ and asking Him for something. How is that different from prayer? Is not prayer talking to God, whether it is asking Him for something or praising Him or thanking Him or whatever? How is what these demons did to be defined as not being prayer? Is it not prayer because Christ was actually present? But the Holy Spirit is always present when we pray! Was it not prayer because only believing Christians can pray? Of course not! Prayer is not some religious ritual. It is talking to God, pure and simple. It seems we’ve lost that idea!

I would encourage all of God’s people to consider adopting what I would call “conversational prayer.” The idea behind conversational prayer is to stop praying like you are blessing things and instead pray like you would talk to a dear friend. For in essence that is what you are doing! When we talk with God, we should discuss things with Him…those things that are going on in our lives, perhaps, and those things that are currently on our hearts. Or those friends or acquaintances of ours whose needs have touched our hearts and about whom we are concerned. We do not have to act like we are casting some sort of power on these situations by praying for them. We cannot make God care any more about these people by praying for them than He already does. We know that this is true! We merely need to bring them up before our loving Heavenly Father, and He Who loves us more than we can even imagine will keep our requests near to His heart. Thus we will be having a conversation with the One we love so much, and not merely using Him to try to achieve our goals.

What other applications can we make from the idea of conversational prayer? One thing I would consider is ways in which we should be reluctant to pray. An example comes to mind. Our church will often give out little sheets of prayer requests for different people in our church, both members of our church and our missionaries. I remember one time after a missions conference in which the missionaries had been urging us on to more prayer, I decided guiltily that I should be praying more. So the next week I took that little list of prayer requests and, during my usual prayer time, sat down and started to pray for them. However, I just couldn’t feel right about doing that. I was sitting here, saying things like, “Lord, bless Jack Doe in Kitamazoe. He has a bad back and needs healing.” And it felt so false to me. The fact was that I didn’t know Jack Dow from Adam, and couldn’t care less about his bad back. And I think I wasn’t the only one who knew that…God knew it, too.

I can say without any hesitation that I would not be walking down the road with one of my friends and all of a sudden speak up and say, “You know, I was just thinking about Jack Doe in Kitamazoe. He has a bad back. I wish it would get better.” My friend might ask, “Who is Jack Doe?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. I read about him on a list somewhere.” I think my friend would look at me like I was crazy. And God must do the same thing. Not only that, but also He knows Jack Doe, and He knows all about his bad back. And He loves Jack Doe as well, and really cares about what happens to him, which is much more than I can say! So can He really be very impressed when I come up to Him and say, “Look, God, I want you to take care of Jack Doe,” when He knows that I don’t know or really care about the man at all? This is what I mean by casting prayer. I’m trying to cast prayer on Jack Doe, not talk to my Heavenly Father about something that is actually of concern to me. Is this really right? Is this something that I should be doing?

Now maybe I’m lacking in something. Maybe some people are just able to read on a list of prayer requests a name like Jack Doe and a problem like a bad back and then out of nowhere call up a great amount of love and concern for him. Maybe I’m not loving enough, or I would be able to have love and concern for Jack Doe as well. But the fact is that I don’t, and I don’t see what good talking to God about one of His dear children will do, when He knows very well that I don’t know that person or really have the slightest bit of concern about what happens to him. If I was God, I’d just ignore myself if I did something like that. I can’t help but think that God probably does the same thing. And I can imagine what God thinks about me coming up to Him and asking Him to make the seeds in this pot grow more than the seeds in that other one!

So what do I pray to God about? I pray to Him about things that are really of concern to me! I’m not saying that I’m selfish, only praying for myself and the things that involve me. There is quite a list of people that I pray quite often for…some every day! And the list is growing as the number of people I know and care about grows. It happens that I’ll notice one of my friends and some need in his or her life and will determine to pray for that person. It is something which arises out of a genuine care and concern for that person. Then I come to God and speak to God about my friend just as mutual friends would talk about someone dear to both of them who has some need or concern in his life. I discuss these dear ones of mine with God, and I know that He often agrees with me in my assessment of that person’s need, and I feel that we have accomplished something by discussing this person together. Not that I think that I’ve blessed this person or cast some sort of good favor upon him or her! God cared for that person just as much before I prayed for him as after. But is it not a good thing when friends talk together about those whom they care about? Must not God enjoy the fact that someone else shares with Him in His concern for this person who is so dear to Him? Was not such fellowship part of the very reason that God created man? But I do not expect God to display some wondrous show of power because of my prayer for that person! If He does something for that person, then I will count it as His loving care for that person. I will not credit myself or the “power” of my prayers as having brought about God’s care for that person! That would be nonsense. I know that God would care for me and look out for me even if no one ever prayed for me again!

But, you may ask, what about God’s promises, such as John 14:14 (NKJV), “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it”? It is important in understanding prayer that we remember what God’s plan for prayer is today, and keep it distinct from that in the previous dispensation. In times past, men have had the ability to ask God for things. God had guaranteed these people certain blessings if they would ask for them. This was a promise of His, and so the carrying out of it was Him fulfilling His promise, not the result of some sort of mystic power in casting prayer. But we have no such promises connected to our prayers! What does God say of prayer today? Philippians 4:6-7 (NKJV) says it much better than I ever could: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

So let us pray this way in our prayers. Let us make our requests known to God, and know that He is most certainly aware of them. Then, let us be filled with the peace of God, knowing that He cares for us and those whom we have prayed about more than we can ever know. He will take care of these things that we have brought before Him! Let us rest in that, and let our hearts and minds be guarded by the peace of God.

This is enough for prayer to do. Let us not expect miracles from our casting of prayer. Let us merely rest in the knowledge that our loving Lord now knows our requests, and will work things out in ways we cannot possibly understand. And it is His love that will cause this to happen, and nothing else! This, the love of Christ, is the true “power of prayer.”