What Prayer Is… and Isn’t
Dec 25, 2022 212
Christians are meant to pray, right? But I used to have a very shallow idea about what prayer is.
I imagine that we’ve all been to a church at some stage of our lives and listened to someone going on and on in prayer. That might not have been the best advertisement for prayer.
I used to think that prayer was mainly about making sure that I spent a certain amount of time every day with my eyes closed and thinking through things that I wanted from God, and asking him for these things. But I didn’t really know what prayer is.
I think my understanding and experience have developed since then. However, I honestly think that there are still a vast number of followers of Jesus who still have this same idea about what it means to pray: you just ask for stuff and keep your fingers crossed that you get it! It’s a means to an end.
But that’s not what prayer is in the Bible. Prayer is important in itself, and not for its results alone.
Even if we talk about our relationship with God, you don’t pray in order to have a relationship with God. You don’t even pray to demonstrate that relationship.
You pray primarily because it is the very basis of your relationship with God, not as a means to that relationship.
An analogy is that you don’t breathe in order to show that you are alive, instead breathing is the basis of your life. So too, you don’t pray in order to show anyone that you have a relationship with God Instead, you pray because it is the very basis of your relationship.
Jesus illustrated this with the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This is what he said,
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:10–14.)
It is important to remember the reason why Jesus told this story. The gospel of Luke prefaces the story with,
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable (Luke 19:9.)
It is clear that the key lessons of this parable, therefore, have to do with not trusting in our own righteousness, and with not looking down on others. And it is significant to see that these important themes are reflected in how we pray.
The Pharisee thought he was pretty good compared to others. So, he was bold in approaching God in prayer, but for the wrong reason. He was bold because he thought that God should listen to him due to his faithfulness and the moral quality of his life. For the Pharisee, praying was a public performance through which he demonstrated his faith.
What does the way you pray say about how you see God?
Through his prayer, the Pharisee attempts to demonstrate to God and to others how full of righteousness and goodness he is. That’s why God doesn’t listen to his prayer. You don’t need God’s gift of righteousness if you have it already, do you?
On the other hand, the tax collector would not even look to heaven, which was the standard way to pray for Jewish people in the time of Jesus. He didn’t even come close to where the others were praying. Instead, he beat his breast, a sign of mourning and deep distress, and called for God’s mercy upon him as a sinner. He approached God in a deep sense of his own unworthiness, and in profound sorrow for his sin.
Instead of being full like the Pharisee, the tax collector approaches God in emptiness, asking for mercy so that he might be filled.
The tax collector’s prayer isn’t a performance. It isn’t a “demonstration” of his faith. The tax collector’s prayer is the very essence of his relationship with God. That’s what prayer is. And so should our prayers also be.
I wonder, do you pray? What does the way you pray say about how you see God and how you see yourself? What kind of a relationship do you have with him?
– Eliezer Gonzalez