Simply put, God’s will for our lives is healing and wholeness: nothing short of our complete redemption and the transformation of our minds into the likeness of Jesus. We practice the disciplines that we might put ourselves in the way of God’s transforming power, “presenting ourselves as living sacrifices” as Paul entreated. In prayer, we create a space both to listen and to speak, and simply to be with the Master who works redemption into everything. Creating that space is how cooperate in being “his workmanship in Christ Jesus.” Foster says this:
“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ. William Blake tells us that our task in life is to learn to bear God’s “beams of love.” How often we fashion cloaks of evasion – beam proof shelters – in order to elude our Eternal Lover. But when we pray, God slowly and graciously reveals to us our evasive actions and sets us free from them” (Celebration of Discipline, 53).
Yahweh pursues us. He never stops. He never tires of wooing each of us. When we stop and choose to be with him, he works love and healing into all the dark places we seek so furiously to protect.
Prayer Precedes Yahweh’s Action in the World
The modern, empiricist worldview creates a false division between “natural” and “supernatural” causality. Yahweh does not watch from afar, but is active in his creation, empowering its redemption through the common life Christians are formed to share. He seeks to bring about his desires for the world through our action and asking. I can’t make that “make sense,” but it’s Jesus who tells us to pray even though the Father knows what we need.
How to Pray
The only way to be bad at prayer is not to do it. Praying the wrong things is fine, because that can be worked out. Paul says that when we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit does it for us. I think we can trust that. The only real failure in prayer is not to do it. We ought not to entertain any illusions about how sweet prayer is, or think nice flowery thoughts about it, when it’s really just hard work. It’s tough to be with Jesus in the dark and lonely places, and it’s hard to pray for people in those places.
As I’ve said, it’s alright not to know what to say. The greater part of prayer needs to be listening. So create the empty space. Sit and be quiet and ask the question, “What do You want for your world?” Let the god who is redeeming your person and transforming your mind give you his desire for his world and the people in your life. If Jesus incites compassion in you for anyone around you, pray for their need.
You don’t have to pray for a large number of people to pray well, or pray for “big deal things.” Focus on somebody, and consider whatever their pain, struggle or need might be. Ask, “Jesus, what do you want for this one whom you love?” Visualize Jesus laying hands on that individual, and healing. See him speaking words of tenderness into hurt and fear. Ask him to do it. You don’t have to use fancy words. “Jesus, help” can be more than sufficient.
A Word on Unanswered Prayer
Yes, sometimes our own wrong motives can be the explanation for unanswered prayer. I know that sometimes the answer to prayer looks like something very different that what we would hope. I don’t want to say anything to explain away what might look like Yahweh’s neglect, because sometimes we just need to sit with the idea. One should never be flippant regarding apparently unanswered prayer.
I do know for certain that neither an incorrect formula, nor lack of faith (as if could be measured) is the culprit. One can only pray poorly if one does not pray at all. And Jesus said that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The depth or “size” of one’s faith is unimportant. The object of faith is. Big faith in Jesus to save is not the issue, but rather faith in Jesus enough to ask. (I’ve written on this before, if you’re interested.)
Check out “Prayer” in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for deeper treatment.