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 (Manna 96: Spiritual Nurture: Prayer)
Prayer: Build Up and Be Fruitful
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Vincent Yeung—Cambridge, UK

Prayer, together with the word of God, is an integral pillar of the Christian faith. Be it in tongues or in words of understanding, prayer enables Christian growth. The apostle Paul explains that we edify[1] ourselves when we speak in a tongue, as the Spirit prays, and prayers with understanding make our mind fruitful (1 Cor 14:4, 14–15).  

A typical prayer comprises praising God, petition, and intercession. Before each prayer session in church, we receive regular reminders to pray for the church ministry locally, nationally, and abroad, as well as for those who are weaker physically or spiritually. Over time, given such standard prayer "formulae," we no longer think deliberately and precisely about the focus of our prayers, nor do we reflect on the outcomes achieved. If this persists, our prayers will become stale, repetitive chants.

Some of us have been Christians for years, meaning we have spent many cumulative hours praying. And while we have heard testimonies, many of us have had no personal numinous experiences in prayer. More worryingly, God may appear remote and non-responsive to our supplications. In contrast to Paul's experience, we do not seem to be edified or fruitful after each prayer. Wherein lies the problem? How can we improve our prayers?

For a start, we should consider the following:

  • Are we approaching God in the right way?
  • Are we asking for the right things?
  • Are we praying about the matters that concern us most? Do we mean what we say?


Our email inboxes and social media channels are bombarded with all sorts of spam and advertisements. Even on platforms such as LinkedIn,[2] which was developed to connect professionals, a significant number of contact requests turn out to be formulaic sales messages. Consequently, we have learned to identify and ignore such "junk mail" based on its content or title.

The obverse is that if we are in the sender's position and need to get the attention of someone important, our message must be succinct and sufficiently intriguing. To achieve the latter, we must be familiar with this person's interests and priorities. Similarly, if we want God's attention, we must know His priorities. We cannot expect a response from God by simply babbling half-hearted prayers or praying for things not aligned with His teachings and will.

Prayer is a discovery of God and oneself. Exemplary prayers in the Bible reiterate God's character, deeds, and nature.  

" 'The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression.' "  (Num 14:18a)

"Yours, O LORD, is the greatness,
The power and the glory,
The victory and the majesty;
For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours." (1 Chr 29:11a)

It is not that God needs us to remind Him of who He is and what He is like. Instead, prayer allows us to discover or rediscover God's nature and what He is willing and able to do for us today. As longtime Christians who have heard many sermons and attended many classes and seminars, we have an intellectual knowledge of who God is. But deep within us, do we really trust what we know? Prayer enables us to truly understand and experience God's power and mercy.

In her desperation, Hannah discovered and reaffirmed what God could do for her:

"The LORD kills and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up." (1 Sam 2:6–7)

Her prayer set out a picture of who God is, what He is like, and what He had done in the past. God can change things. If God has done marvelous and miraculous deeds in history, how much more can He do for her in her hour of need. Indeed, God did more than she expected. Hannah asked for one child, but she received more than requested (1 Sam 2:21), and her prayer brought national deliverance.

Jonah landed in the pit of a fish's belly when he attempted to flee from God. In his guilt and near-hopelessness, he had a wonderful realization: God was still there (Jon 2:2)! His prayer was, thus, not a futile supplication in the dark emptiness but a rediscovery of God and a renewed awareness that He is the source of true hope, making possible new beginnings. Jonah realized God's mercy was still available to him after his repentance, despite his past rebellion. In his repentance, Jonah recognized, "Salvation is of the LORD" (Jon 2:9).

By knowing God, we can evaluate whether what we pray for is worthy of His attention. God is just and righteous, so the top priority in our prayers should be learning to be equally just and righteous.

Do we have a valid reason for expecting God to help us? James told us that the double-minded and those asking for unworthy matters would not receive anything (Jas 1:7–8; 4:3). To reach God, we must first have worthy goals; second, we need to have the urge to achieve these goals; and third, we must believe God can deliver. God could see Hannah and Jonah's determination and yearning for His deliverance. Have we got the same eagerness towards what we are praying for? We pray for the evangelism and prosperity of the church, but do we have any interest or eagerness to accomplish what we pray for? Intercession is the first step; participation is the next critical step. We must not just talk and pray and not do anything else. Divine grace works through human beings, and the word of God has to be realized and fulfilled by fallible individuals. In Paul's doxology, he reminds us of the grace and love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14). To make an effective prayer, our will, actions, and goals must be consistent with God's.


"God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (Jn 4:24)  

Are we truthful to ourselves and to God? Our petition to God may be worthy, but are these requests truly the goal we want? Repeating the Lord's Prayer (Mt 6:8–13) must not simply be a habitual chant of a model prayer. Every time we recite the Lord's Prayer, we have the opportunity to re-examine whether we honor God's name, carry out His will on earth, and forgive our debtors.  

With our flesh warring against our spirituality, establishing our spiritual priorities is difficult (Rom 7:14–23). Solomon asked for wisdom and a heart of understanding when God appeared to him in Gibeon (1 Kgs 3:9–10). It was an exemplary request. However, what he did not ask for (but probably desired) could be seen from his subsequent behavior (Eccl 2:3–9). He acquired horses and chariots (1 Kgs 4:26; 10:26), took thirteen years to build a magnificent palace (1 Kgs 7:1–12), and gratified every wish of his heart (Eccl 2:10). Even his fabulous wealth could not satisfy his material desires and extravagance, becoming a "heavy yoke" on the people (1 Kgs 12:4).

In contrast, God called David, Solomon's father, a man after His own heart (1 Sam 13:14). David's prayer reflected how well he knew God and the right attitude and actions men must have to please Him. God tests the heart and takes pleasure in uprightness (1 Chr 29:17). David knew his place on earth—"who am I, and who are my people?"—and recognized that his days on earth were as a shadow (1 Chr 29:14–15). The Israelites offered willingly to the Lord because they knew that all possessions ultimately come from Him (1 Chr 29:12, 14, 17). Building a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem was an opportunity for men and women to show the genuineness of their worship—both physical and spiritual.

Returning to Jonah's prayer in this light, we can see his newfound understanding of God in the time of adversity was valuable but facile and limited. He had discovered that God is merciful and forbearing, yet he did not reflect on his inner self against God's attributes. His supercilious attitude toward the Assyrians became apparent—it was fine for him to receive God's mercy, but not the 120,000 Ninevites who could not even discern their right hand from their left (Jon 4:11). It is a missed opportunity if we only pray for and appreciate God's deliverance of ourselves, but not pray to have the heart of God. God makes "His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust"; we need to pursue perfection just as the Father in heaven is perfect (Mt 5:45, 48). Luke puts it in practical terms: "Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful" (Lk 6:36).

Prayer is a path of self-discovery that can lead us to a healthy self-awareness and, through this, to proper self-discipline. It is often difficult to admit to the common human weaknesses of pride, conceit, and self-interest. So we keep these hidden, even from ourselves—a sure path to self-destruction. To build ourselves up, we must discover ourselves and make the necessary adjustments and reorientation to render ourselves and our prayers worthy of the Lord.


If intercession is a deepened awareness of how we place other people in our lives and in our world, then we need to intentionally explore and learn more about the people around us—to understand their needs, shortcomings, and obstacles. Do we know what our friends and brethren need the most? Have we spent enough time finding out what concerns them or in what areas we should pray for them? Or are they mere names or broad categories that we label as "truth-seekers" or "sick members"?

Jacob knew his children well—Reuben was unstable as water, Simeon and Levi were violent, Dan was like a serpent, and Benjamin a ravenous wolf (Gen 49:3–6, 17, 27). Moses was also well aware of the strengths and challenges of the different tribes. Dan and Naphtali were "full of the blessing of the Lord" and were doing well, whereas Reuben struggled to survive (Deut 33:22–23, 6). Similarly, the church today comprises members from all walks of life, backgrounds, and cultures. We may find some characters more difficult to get along with. Most of us choose to avoid such members and are rarely prepared to show them true forbearance and lovingkindness. This is why Paul reminds us to bear with one another and keep the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:1–2).  

When we think that God's heart is closed to our requests, we must ask ourselves whether it is because our eyes are closed to those for whom we are interceding. We must first have the faith and courage to forgive and accept their undesirable behaviors and character and be reconciled with them.

For Moses to pray for the people (Num 14:18–19), he first needed to reconcile with them after they rejected him (Num 14:2, 4). What enabled him to overlook and forgive their rejection, hurtful words, and perpetual ingratitude?

Daniel's prayer for the people reminds us that God grants our supplications because of His forgiveness and gracious mercy rather than our righteousness (Dan 9:9, 18). We, who are called by God's name, have hope because of His gracious mercy (Dan 9:19). And the petition for forgiveness—"forgive us…as we forgive" (Mt 6:12)—emphasizes that Christian life is one of reconciliation, both within and outside the community.

Forgiveness may be the hardest of all gifts to offer others. Had it been easy, it would not have been included in the Lord's Prayer. But nothing is impossible for God. If we are open, He will be the source and ground of an unlimited range of new possibilities that can transform our relationship with one another in exceptional ways.

Paul prayed for the believers to be grounded in love and to experience the "width and length and depth and height" of the boundless love of Christ (Eph 3:14–19). Prayers enable us to search for this divine love, so we can mature, grow, and reciprocate God's love through intercession for others and acts of forgiveness.


As the pandemic has shown so dramatically, life is fragile. We, or our friends and relatives, can be suddenly struck by inexplicable illnesses. At the onset, we may be able to pray for healing with faith. But when a complete cure does not present itself, our faith wavers. What can we learn from biblical role models who had similar experiences?

When an incurable illness struck Hezekiah, his royal lifestyle did not give him much peace. Instead, he spoke of the bitterness of his soul (Isa 38:15). Nevertheless, this unexpected illness enhanced his appreciation of life. At that juncture, he had not yet received his deliverance, yet he realized that his illness, and the bitterness that came with it, was for his own peace (Isa 38:17). His anguish enabled him to draw near to God and saved him from the pit of destruction.  

When life is smooth and prosperous, the enjoyment accompanying worldly success diminishes our need for God; He is no longer at the forefront of our minds. In contrast, pain and suffering amplify our yearning for God and His comfort. God has His plan for us when He does not grant our prayers immediately. He has a better solution for us when He does not give us the solution we ask for. Ultimately, when we pray and trust Him, we are being built up.  

Paul celebrated his weakness and the non-fulfillment of his prayer because he realized that, through suffering, the power of Christ rested on him (2 Cor 12:8–9). Christ was perfected, not by superhuman endowment, but because He learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb 5:8). Paul also declared that tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword could not separate him from the love of Christ (Rom 8:35). The clear and simple reason was that God was "in" the suffering with him, and God inspired him through prayer.


Prayer requires a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of God. In turn, prayer deepens such an understanding by establishing certain behaviors relevant to our experience. We do not merely pray to know God's will, or ask and expect Him to give and act, while we sit back and do nothing. The knowledge of His will enables us to walk worthy of Him. By knowing, doing, and learning, this practical—rather than theoretical—knowledge is augmented and abounds (Col 1:9–10).

It is not God's reluctance that makes prayer difficult, but rather our inability to seek the things God desires to give. Prayer should not be an impersonal and mindless repetition but a time for us to think deeply and reflect. Prayer uncovers the awareness of ultimate meaning and purpose. It allows us to discover ourselves, the people around us, their needs and ours, and the changes we should make. Critically, prayer facilitates a new discovery of the right priorities, the acceptance of our path, and the unexpected possibilities God can achieve for us.

We must lift our eyes to see a little farther and try to learn more of what God has made possible for us through the transforming power of Jesus. Prayer opens up a whole new vista for growth in Christian experience and understanding. With such understanding, we can be built up, grow, and finally realize the God-given possibilities before us.

[1] Greek: οἰκοδομέω, "to build."

[2] An online and app-based business and employment-focused social media platform.

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Author: Vincent Yeung