My teenaged son, Matt, always has a great time when he visits my parents. And why shouldn't he? Matt gets out of bed whenever he wants, eats whatever he wants, and watches whatever he wants on TV. In fact, Matt made a grand discovery at Grandma's house during his last visit. My mother keeps a bucket of chocolate-chip cookie dough in her refrigerator that Matt enjoyed eating by the spoonful! When he returned from that visit, he began asking me to buy cookie dough from Sam's Club, just like my mom.
I know having cookie dough easily available isn't good for either of us, so I said "no" over and over . . . until last week. Matt's repeated requests finally wore me down.
That's one of the big differences between God's parenting and mine. God doesn't give me everything I repeatedly ask for when he knows it's not best for me. But a shallow reading of Luke 11:9-10 could lead me to think otherwise. There Jesus says, "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."
Is the way to get what I want from God through wearing him down, or getting as many people as possible to ask God for it? What kinds of prayer really move the heart and hand of God?
Secret-formula prayer vs. seeking prayer
As his parent, I don't want Matt to try to get what he wants by constantly begging me for it or getting everyone he knows to gang up on me. I want to hear his heart on the matter, and I want him to hear mine. I want us to have a conversation. Isn't that how it is with our heavenly Father? Prayer is about a conversation with our loving God—not about wearing him down to get what we want.
There's so much to want—healed bodies, restored relationships, changed circumstances. But asking, seeking, and knocking aren't secret formulas for getting what we want from God; they're ways to get more of God. As I listen to God speak to me through his Word, he gives me more of himself in fuller, newer ways. Then, if healing doesn't come, if the relationship remains broken, or if the pressures increase, I have the opportunity to discover for myself he is enough. His presence is enough. His purpose is enough.
If you truly want to move God's heart, put aside secret-formula prayer and instead begin to practice prayer that seeks the Giver more than the gifts.
Superficial prayer vs. significant prayer
Sometimes I catch myself "chatting" with God, limiting my prayers to superficial things and surface issues, never getting to the heart of the matter. And I've noticed that when others offer prayer requests, they're rarely about spiritual needs. We ask God to heal physical ailments, provide safe travel, and to "be with us."
Of course God cares about these things. But prayer is spiritual work toward a spiritual end. God wants to rub off our rough edges and clean up our character. So why do we settle for talking to him only about the superficial stuff? When our prayers move from the superficial to the significant, we invite God to do no less than a deep, transforming, igniting work in our life and in the lives of those for whom we're praying.
I've often found myself slipping into superficial mode in my prayers for Matt—asking God to keep him safe or to bless his day at school. But I really don't want to settle for those things. So my prayers have moved from the superficial to the significant. I'm asking God to shape Matt's character—even if it requires some struggle. I'm begging the Holy Spirit to ignite in Matt a passion for holiness and a love for God's Word. These are things that really matter. This is what significant prayer is all about.
Showy prayer vs. secret prayer
Several years ago, at a friend's wedding, a college friend described me to her other friends as "a prayer warrior." Her comment surprised me because I knew it wasn't true. I guess I'd made a great impression with my public prayers at our weekly Bible study group in college. But the truth was, there wasn't much private prayer going on in my life.
If I'm not careful, I still can make prayer all about impressing others with my pseudo-spirituality. That's "showy prayer"—prayer that's more for others' ears than for God's. Jesus warned against this: "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the doors and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:5-6).
Showy prayer uses put-on voices, lofty words, and spiritual-sounding phrases; simple prayer is authentic and humble. I can perform public prayers or make claims of private prayer, and settle for the applause of people; or I can go to a secret place, shut the door, and commune with God. It's in that secret place with him you and I find our most blessed reward—not impressing others, but cultivating true intimacy with him.
Insistent prayer vs. submissive prayer
Nothing's taught me more about prayer than Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to Hebrews 5:7-8, "during the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered."
This moves me, because I know what it's like to offer prayers with loud cries and tears, to come before God with a broken heart and a desperate need. Several years ago, physicians told my husband and me that because of a rare metabolic disorder, our newborn daughter, Hope, would live for only two or three months.
Time seemed to be slipping away so quickly when one day, as I rocked Hope in the nursery we'd prepared for her—tears spilling down my face—I thought, I'll ask God to give Hope more time. It seemed such a modest prayer; I'd already surrendered any insistence God heal her completely. But even as that prayer formed in my mind, I sensed God calling me to submit to his perfect timing. So my prayer instead became, Give me strength to make the most of every day you give me with Hope. Show me how to rest in your plan for her life and mine.
In Hope's life and death, I learned what it is to pray to a God who has the power to make another way . . . but chooses not to. It helps to know Jesus understands what this feels like. Like Jesus, I've wrestled with God's plan for my life even as I've sought to submit to it. But Jesus shows me how to obey when God's answer to my sincere, reverent prayer is "no." I also see Jesus' example of obedience.
I've learned that submissive prayer is prayer that welcomes God to work in and through my suffering rather than begs him to take it away. It's thanking God for what he gives me rather than resenting him for what I lose. Submissive prayer is changing me from someone who knew a lot about God into someone who's experiencing God in deep, though sometimes difficult, ways.
Too often I still find myself merely going through the motions of prayer, but I want to pray in a way that's authentic, sincere, and effective. I'm learning to go to my heavenly Father in the way I want my son to come to me. I want to hear what Matt wants and needs. I want to respond. I want to be active in his life, doing what I know is best for him.
Our heavenly Father's no different. He has no need for a show or secret formulas, and he's not interested in keeping things superficial. He loves it when we come to him—and he simply wants to talk with us.
Nancy Guthrie is the author of Holding On to Hope: A Pathway Through Suffering to the Heart of God and The One Year Book of Hope (both Tyndale). She lives in Tennessee.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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March/April 2006, Vol. 28, No. 2, Page 22