Thursday, May 26, 2011

"I'll Pray for You?"

TITLE: I’ll Pray for You
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 25 May 2011
"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God." (Philippians 1:9-11)
One of the things that I normally do is to ask some of my parish members, “How can I pray for you?” Usually, the requests are quite forthcoming.
  • Please pray for my children.
  • Pray for my health, my job and my coming project.
  • Please remember my sick mother in prayer
  • Please pray that my dad will recover quickly
  • Please pray that I will be able to manage my time better.
  • And so on….
A short time ago, I receive a strange reply. This person seems reserved and unwilling to share any requests. He is struggling with what it means to pray. He does not understand why there is a need to pray. Most of all, he is not sure why anyone should pray after encountering unanswered prayers previously. That moment, I realize that prayer is still something that is not easily understood. I have learned that prayer is not about asking for things. It is about a person. It is about relationship. It is about intimacy. This friend of mine has apparently some way to go about understanding prayer.

In this article, I like to deal with some thoughts about some misconceptions of prayer. We learn how NOT to pray, and to suggest how then we can pray.

A) Three Popular Misconceptions

An unanswered prayer presents a pious Christian an enigma. If God promises to answer prayer, why not my prayer? If my prayer is not answered, does that mean God is powerless? God is not listening? Is prayer just a psychological feel-good exercise? Does pray work?

Dr James Houston laments the state of prayerlessness in the Church today. He identifies three erroneous ways Christians have approached prayer. He calls them ‘common misunderstandings.’

Misconception #1 – Prayer is something we ‘do’

When prayer becomes a mere exercise, or an item on our ‘to-do’ list, prayer is downgraded to another of those things that focuses one on self-needs, and the techniques. The position is as follows:
Prayer becomes an instrument of our sense of well-being. When this happens, pray becomes an end in itself. In fact, it becomes a dead end. Absorbed in the techniques, we forget who we are praying to. We lose sight of the relationship that we wanted to have with God.” (James Houston, The Prayer, England, Victor Books, 2007, 34-5)

One of the oft-taught spiritual exercises is prayer. Prayer becomes such a big deal in the Christian ‘to-do’ list that it is something that HAS to be done. If one does not pray ‘enough’ one may feel less of a Christian. Houston goes on to highlight the biblical parable of a Pharisee’s flowery prayer of praise and thanksgiving, and then contrasts that with the simple humble prayer of the sinner, that seeks God for help and forgiveness. The former prays out of his accomplishments. The latter prays out of his emptiness. Houston then follows up by saying that prayer is more an attitude of the heart, than a ‘correct way’ of doing things.

I am often guilty of seeing prayer as another to-do item on my spiritual laundry list. Prayer should not be restricted to a particular hour or time of day, like many Muslims do. Prayer is a lifestyle. Prayer is an attitude. Prayer is more than a to-do item.

Danger of this Misconception: Prayer becomes limited to a self-focused to-do item.

Misconception #2 – Prayer is a custom

Here, prayer becomes so much a part of one’s ritual and routine, that one feels good after finishing the customary prayer. The focus is on the structure, and to keep with the 'rules' of it. It is like saying: "It has always been done that way!" When one fulfills the custom, the result is a ‘feel good’ effect. The trouble with such customary prayer practice is that one can feel ‘deadened’ or hardened to the reality of prayer. Houston argues:
Saying prayers by rote, without serious reflection or personal intent, runs the risk of becoming the vain repetition that Jesus so severely criticized.” (39)

The main thing Houston is against is not the saying of prayers, but the MINDLESS saying of prayers. True prayer links heart and mind together. It is more than a custom. The French philosopher says it well.
"Prayer is not a discourse. It is a form of life, the life with God. That is why it is not confined to the moment of verbal statement." (Jacques Ellul)
Danger of this Misconception: Prayer becomes limited to a mindless exercise.

Misconception #3 – Prayer as Magic

Of all the three, this particular misunderstanding of prayer is most damaging to the Christian life. By planting a physical and visible end-result or promise in the mind of the believer, the believer is artificially given a heightened expectation of some tangible results to be seen. Here, the focus of prayer is on the hocus-pocus that leads to RESULTS. The potential harm to any young believer is not just the lack of answer. In fact, an answer to one prayer may raise expectations of one to ‘raise the bar’ of magical asking. Houston warns:

“In the West, health and wealth are the modern obsessions. Another tendency is therefore to assume that God intends us to have these goodies. We think we have every right to ask for them, and so prayer is brought in to work its magic on our behalf. In many religious groups, permanently disabled people have been condemned for not having ‘enough faith’ to be healed from their disability.” (40)

Another example I can think of is a parent’s plea for God to heal his child. As the child fights for dear life, members of the Church gather to pray, and some invoke the name of Jesus, and the power of healing to touch the child. The child died. The parent became bitter. Confusion reigned in the church.

Danger of this Misconception: Prayer becomes limited to set of results.

B) Prayer in God

For the Christian, prayer is to God, in God, with God, and for God. If one treats prayer like an item on the ‘to-do’ list, the focus is on the ACTIVITY. Prayer is one more item to be done in order to feel good about ourselves.

If prayer is treated like a custom, the focus is on the COMPLETION of the spiritual act through technique, the prayer itself rather than God. The control lies with ourselves rather than God. We feel that as long as we go through the motions, we have done our duties. Prayers like these reduce the Christian to an mindless religious person saying prayers for the sake of routine.

If prayer is treated like magic, the focus is in SOLVING problems. Take a pill and the headache is gone. Press a button and the garbage is cleared. Say a command and the work is completed.

True prayer is none of the above. True Christian prayer is focused on God alone. It moves our focus away from ourselves or our concerns toward God. Prayer is a change of perspective from self to the Triune God. Houston calls this as:
  • “The focus of prayer is not prayer but God himself”
  • “Prayer means seeking the mind of Christ and Spirit of Jesus”
  • “Prayer asks the Holy Spirit to help us to pray.”

C) Prayer is Meeting God

What then is prayer? Simply put, it is meeting God, and let God set the agenda, the program, and the result. In all of these, true prayer is essentially about that intimate moment with God, and to ask God to meet us where we are. In prayer as a relationship, God is a friend that we can come despite our ups and downs. God is an intimate Deity for us to surrender to, or to give thanks despite any of our emotional conditions. Prayer is desiring God for WHO GOD IS, not based on our own inner expectations. This is best expressed in the prayer of Ignatius of Loyola.

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
My memory, my understanding, and my entire will –
All that I have and call my own,
You have given it to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.”
D) But I am not THAT Spiritual

You will probably be asking me, “What if I am not like the spiritual masters who are able to seek God for who God is? I am still very needy.

My response will be this. If we constantly run after the earthly things, we will remain unchanged. That is, we will continue to run after things, which makes us run after MORE things. We will never be satisfied. Our stomachs remain unsatisfied. Our thirst remains unquenched. Until we realize that we need more of God, and less on solving our own problems, our prayer lives will not progress beyond asking for things, and more things. We will become more and more needy. We become perennial spiritual beggars, rather than humble servants.

Jesus was speaking to the unnamed Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. l Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
If our prayers are about ourselves and our needs, we will speedily become thirsty, never satisfied. If prayer is about God, and about nourishing this relationship and cultivating friendship with God, we will be on the path of drinking water from the spring of life. The great writer of prayer, Andrew Murray says it well:
"Some people pray just to pray and some people pray to know God."
I suppose, one measure of a person's spirituality is to be able to ask: "Pray that I will know God better." When we are lost about what and how to pray, perhaps, we can simply say:

"Lord, help me. Forgive me a sinner, and help me to pray. In Jesus' Name I ask. Amen."

Often, the words "I'll Pray for You" is not what we say to others, but what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. Think about that.


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