Psalm 139:1-12, Philippians 4:4-13
August 10, 2008
Over the years I’ve heard people talk about “The Power of Prayer.” They’ve said things like, “I believe in the power of prayer.” Or “I know that prayer works.” But I must admit that when I hear people say such things, I wonder what they mean.
I too believe in the power of prayer! I too believe that prayer works! And I am glad to hear people say such things. But sometimes I do wonder what they mean. Because sometimes what people mean by that is that “prayer works to get us what we need.” “Prayer works in that you get things you ask for, if you know how to ask.”
Well, that bothers me, because I don’t believe prayer is something we use solely to get things we need or we want – no matter how noble or important those things may be. Prayer is not some formula we can learn to use so our life can be successful and filled with abundance. It’s not something we “learn to do” in order to affect outcomes.
Think about it. Scripture tells us that God knows our needs even before we ask. But that doesn’t mean that it’s then our task to convince God of those needs enough to get him to grant them. Psalm 139 is a most profound writing of King David. It gives us a wonderful insight into the intimate way God really knows us! He writes, “Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up. Thou discernest my thoughts from afar… Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely!”
That is such a different way of seeing our relationship with God from the way we too often see it, isn’t it? Too often we think of God as someone who we can call on, who we can invite into our conscious thoughts, when we need to. Sometimes we even find ourselves thinking of God as I once heard him described, “as a grandfatherly figure who is just a little bit senile, and who smiles at us a lot, but doesn’t see clearly what we’re up to, and who we can pull things over on if we do it cleverly enough.” Isn’t there some truth in that for some people, the way they treat God?
Friends, that’s not God! “Where can I go from your Spirit?” David asks? “Where can I flee from your presence?” His conclusion – nowhere! That’s the God of the universe. That’s not the God that too many people hold in their own understanding. Too many people think they’ve got things “all figured out” about God. They think their understanding is right. Or it’s good enough for them. Because a God who knows all our thoughts – even the thoughts we’re not proud of! – that’s too uncomfortable for them. That’s too intrusive!
I want to tell you again today, my friends, that the vision of God as one who’s way out there and who doesn’t interact with us until we’re ready is not the real vision of God. The true God is the God of the Psalmist. He’s the one who knows our every thought. He’s the one who knows those things we do that we’re not proud of. He knows those things. He knows our failures. He knows. That’s the one thing we can always count on in all our thoughts and plans and understanding. God knows.
So if “the power of prayer” is something we can “believe in,” what is it that we believe? If part of the understanding about that power is that, if you learn to pray well enough, or often enough, or sincerely enough, or believing enough, then you will get what you pray for because God has then heard your request and he now knows what’s important to you, let me tell you this. God already hears! God already knows how important your request is to you. So, “informing God” of what’s going on is really a moot point. It’s not part of the “formula.”
You see, the problem is that it isn’t us “askers” who are in charge. “The power of prayer” is not us having the power. It’s not us controlling God, no matter how noble or important our requests may be! The power lies with God. Paul told the Corinthians, “We have this treasure (God’s spirit within us) in earthen vessels – common clay pots – so that it may be made clear that the transcendent power – this extraordinary power – belongs to God, and does not come from us.” (II Corinthians 4:7)
Friends, I believe we need to let the world know that. The power of prayer is not about our ability to “tap into” that extraordinary power. It’s about the ability to surrender to that power! It is to place ourselves completely in God’s hands. It is to say – and mean – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” If we see it that way, then we’re getting a little closer to understanding the power of prayer.
One of my favorite movies is called “Shadowlands.” And it’s the story of C. S. Lewis and his relationship with Joy Gresham who he would eventually marry. Well, in that movie, Joy contracted cancer. And it was very tough for a while. But then, when the cancer had gone into remission, his friend Christopher said to him, “I know how hard you’ve prayed. And now God is answering your prayer.” And Lewis said this. “That’s not why I pray, Christopher. I pray because I can’t help it. I pray because it flows out of me at all times, waking or sleeping. Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me!”
Friends, that really helps me! (It’s amazing how someone can say something so profound without intending to.) Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us! But how does prayer change us? And does it change us?! Does it put us back into that understanding of being in connection with this God who knows our every word before we speak it, and who discerns our every thought? Or does it even get us into that understanding in the first place?
I think that’s the first step in understanding the power of prayer. It’s not our power!! And that doesn’t mean that we aren’t to ask things in prayer. But it does mean that when we ask them, we are to recognize that God knows those things already. The vision of ourselves interacting with God is not one of having a need, informing God of that need, and asking him for our solution to that need. It’s more one of us having a need that God already knows and is concerned about, and then discussing that need with God, sharing our feelings, pouring our hearts out about it. And finally, surrendering to God’s will.
Jesus did that. He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup – the cup of suffering – pass from me.” That was his “human” side pouring out his anguish before God. But he then concluded, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”
What a perfect model for prayer! Because I don’t want anyone to conclude from what I’ve said today that since God knows our thoughts already, that we shouldn’t bother voicing those thoughts! We might think that, you know. No, in fact we should pour our thoughts out to God. We should share those needs and requests in the context of an ongoing and intimate relationship we have with God.
Paul told the Philippians – one of his most beloved churches – “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.” In other words, share everything with God – even though you know that he knows that you know that he knows! It’s the interaction, it’s the struggling together that God wants. He doesn’t want to be that “mail-order house in the sky” that some people feel he is, and where people ask for things and if they ask the “right way” they get what they want.
God wants to be in constant relationship and constant conversation with you. And when that happens, the real power of prayer happens. Look at the conclusion to that thought. “…let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” My friends, that is the power of prayer! Peace! And it is a peace that is beyond our understanding, and it will keep our hearts and minds.
That alone is an incredible part of the power of prayer. Peace. And peace is something that the world is searching for, it is longing for, and it is desperate for. But the world is not finding it. As I think I’ve told you before, the three most prescribed medications in this country are Anti-depressants, Stomach acid blockers, and Sleep aids. Doesn’t that so thoroughly describe the state of our society! People are searching for peace, but what they have is worry and anxiety. Again, Paul’s statement begins “Have no anxiety about anything!” No anxiety? Is he kidding? No he’s not kidding. God wants us to have that peace that passes all human understanding. And it’s through the power of prayer that we receive it. That’s the power of prayer – peace!
Do you see how that is so much more than just the granting of requests, no matter how important and how noble those requests may be? It is through that constant relationship, the constant exchange with God that we find that power and that peace. And you know what I’ve found? I’ve found that when I have that anxiety or worry – and believe me, I’ve got that gene, I’ve got that tendency, I’ve got that bone in my head that makes me worry about stuff – but when I have those times of worry and anxiety, I find that it’s because I’ve forgotten that prayer. It’s at those times I’ve neglected that need for that constant and continuing relationship and conversation with God.
Is it the same with you? Have you felt that anxiety within you? Do you feel like you have needs that God doesn’t seem to be meeting? Are you in need of that peace that passes all human understanding? It is through that constant relationship, it is through the power of prayer, that every day give and take, that struggle with God, that we find that peace. That’s the power of prayer. May that peace be with you!
Eternal God, we need thee every hour, as the hymn says. We need your presence. We need your peace. We need the power that prayer – conversation with you – gives. Help us to know your presence more often. Help us to reach out to you, even in times when we don’t feel very spiritual, or we don’t feel very connected with you. Help us to learn to pray even at those times. Show us your power and your peace. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.