Is Praying As Easy As Breathing?
The simplicity of prayer has been compared to that of breathing. Yet over the history of thousands of years, how many biblical figures maintained a life of prayer? The elect did not understand that God regarded their obedience more highly than their sacrifices (1 Sam 15:22). They substituted the essence of prayer, which combines speaking and acting in the truth, with material sacrifices. Prayer may appear to be simple, but it is one of the most difficult aspects of our spiritual life.
The Flawed Sacrifice God Loathes
Cain's works were evil (1 Jn 3:12), yet he offered a sacrifice to God. Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered profane fire to God. The Israelites in the wilderness cried out to the Lord for meat; later, in Samuel's time, they demanded a king. That king, Saul, overstepped his authority and offered a sacrifice only the priesthood could perform.
It was not for lack of sincerity that these people incurred God's wrath. On the contrary, they offered their prayers and sacrifices with such earnestness and importunity that God granted them their wishes in His anger (cf. Hos 13:11). It is a pity that the fool who follows his own emotions rather than the teachings of God never realizes that his prayers and sacrifices are evil in God's sight (Ecc 5:1). Nadab and Abihu, though zealous, were immediately consumed by God’s fire (Lev 10:1-4) because they overlooked the importance of offerings made in line with God’s truth. Following their own sensibilities rather than His instruction, they offered what was an abomination to God (Prov 15:8).
Prayers Do Not Need to Be Long
While it is commendable that we encourage each other to pray longer, it is possible that over time, we pray with length in mind and make long prayers a symbol of spiritualism. It is wonderful to offer long prayers, but a frivolous definition of prayer we may cloud our spiritual judgment.
Many effective long prayers are recorded in the Bible, but many more prayers that were short and simple found God’s favor. An example would be Abraham’s prayer for the city of Sodom, when he negotiated with God for the lives of the righteous. Each time he asked God to reduce the conditions, God granted him his wish (Gen 18:22-33). Other examples include Moses and Aaron praying to God for the atonement of the Israelites’ sins (Num 16:41-50); Elijah calling for fire from heaven (1 Kgs 18:36-38, 2 Kgs 9-12); King Hezekiah pleading with God to extend his life (2 Kgs 20:3-5); Jesus reviving Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:41); the Lord summoning Lazarus to come out of the tomb (Jn 11:43); and Peter presenting the resurrected Dorcas to the believers (Acts 9:40). These were all short but effective prayers.
Whether a prayer is long or short, its power comes from the same source. Setting a specific time to fix your eyes on the Lord or fasting forty days and nights cannot guarantee your prayers will be answered. "One look of your eyes" or "one link of your necklace"—the short prayer of a believer—can capture God's heart, because you have shown a love toward Him in your daily life that is wonderful in His eyes (Songs 4:9-10). We should not just mirror the image of Christ during prayer—crying out and shedding tears—but live in His likeness every day of our lives. Indeed, the power of prayer comes from the culmination of a dedicated life following God’s will.
Prayer Depends on the Truth and Everyday Living
We need to learn how to pray, and we need to pray aided by the truth. Praying is not just calling out to God but communing with Him in the Spirit. Through prayer we can come to understand God’s words and proclaim His wonderful mystery. Through prayer we gain the source of strength to build ourselves up.
Experience tells us, however, that just because a person opens his mouth to speak doesn't mean anyone will listen to him. A person who speaks nonsense or makes empty boasts will turn off even those who know him best. Such is the case with our prayers to God. The Pharisees acted charitably, fasted, and made long prayers. Their appearance as model servants of God deceived men but not God. The Lord, who knows the hearts of men, condemned their hypocrisy: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Mt 23:23).
An effective prayer is one that stems from knowledge and practice of the truth (Jas 4:3, 5:6). God will not listen to prayers with ulterior motives, no matter how spiritual your requests may be. You may pray for power to edify the church, yet only be asking to excel among fellow workers. We do not know how God will respond, but we can be certain that God knows our hearts, and may respond reluctantly, out of His displeasure. You may have your prayers granted yet still lose everything obtained.
Why It Is Absurd to Deduce the Reason from the Outcome
We often determine whether or not our prayers were "according to God's will" on the basis of the outcome. We rejoice and give thanks if things turn out the way we planned, but become dispirited, repentant, and even divided when things do not go our way. This kind of understanding only directs our prayers toward the will of men instead of the will of God. We make choices that suit our own inclinations or the general trends; we give them a little "spiritual flavor," ignore any opposing views, and believe that we need only to pray hard for God to fulfill everything. Naturally, things turn out the way we had planned—they "fall into place," given the overall direction of things—but we ascribe this to God's will. Deluded by the "success" of the outcome, we continue to pray in this pattern. With a thankful heart, we think we are walking with the Lord, when really we are drifting farther away from Him.
Asking Forcefully: Prayers Granted in God’s Anger
Many examples of prayers in the Bible indicate they were not according to God’s will. They were granted, however, because they "forced" God to answer. If we focus on the fulfillment of our prayers, then praying out of forceful human desire will always be quicker than waiting patiently in the Spirit. If the Third Wave Pentecostal movement becomes mainstream, then under the slogan "Ask in Faith," many people will pray with this "forceful" approach, and many requests will be "fulfilled." They will shake the mindset of the spiritual who pray that "even if God does not deliver us, we will not forsake God" (Dan 3:16-18).
God promised the Israelites a king, one who would rule over them with the Book of Law after they had acquired the land of Canaan. They became impatient, however, demanding God’s promise to be fulfilled before the right time, in spite of God’s warnings and Samuel’s repeated discouragement. Ultimately, God granted them their desire in His anger, setting off a chain of events that would lead the Israelites through 400 years of political turmoil and end in their exile (Hos 13:11).
The Israelites cried out for meat in the desert. Their wailing and weeping aroused the anger of the Lord (Num 11). He instructed Moses to have the people sanctify themselves in preparation for the meat they were to receive. They thought their prayers had been answered and even Moses wrongfully thought that their cries had touched God, not knowing the wrath behind their "blessing." God indeed sent them quails the next day, but inflicted a plague on them as they ate (Num 11:31-35).
Elisha swore to God that he would accept nothing from Namaan. Gehazi, in faith, swore that he would not return without some kind of gift from the Syrian commander. God "accomplished" his faith and he returned joyfully with gifts, thinking how foolish his master was. But before Gehazi could stop rejoicing, God struck him with leprosy so severe he was to laugh no more for the rest of his life (2 Kings 5).
These are just some of the nightmares that befell those who wanted their prayers answered quickly; they sharply illustrate the false belief that the fulfillment of our wishes signifies the harkening of God. We ought to beware of what may be awaiting us after our prayer is "answered" if we pray in rashness, driven by human desire.
Discerning Between "A Prayer That Is Answered" and "A Prayer That Is Heard"
We often construe that if a prayer is not answered then it was carnal and displeased God. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane and did not have His prayers answered. Paul failed to have the thorn removed from his side even though he asked three times. On the other hand, can we say that the carnal prayers of the stiff-necked, complaining Israelites were aligned with God’s will? How else would their prayers have been answered so quickly?
Since the time of Abraham, the prayers of many saints appear not to have been answered. It was as if God had forgotten them or could not hear them. The psalmist explicitly expressed this pain of being forsaken. When Joseph was sold, it was as if God did not hear his pleas, which after twenty years still left an indelible memory on his brothers’ minds (Gen 42:21).
So what do all these examples mean? That God abandons his loyal servants? That He turns a deaf ear to their prayers? No. He did not grant their requests because He had better plans for them. We must learn to distinguish between prayers being answered and prayers being heard. When Moses pleaded with God to take his life, God did not comply, but He did hear Moses’ distress and appointed seventy elders to assist him (Num 11:14-17). God did not remove the metaphorical thorn from Paul, but imparted to him the most profound truth, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor 12:8-9). Though He did not permit Joseph to return home, the Lord never left him, even when Joseph felt most lonesome and forsaken (Gen 39:23).
While God did not answer their prayers, He heard them and bestowed on these saints even greater blessings, giving them peace beyond their expectations. On the contrary, His "answer" to the Israelites’ prayers was plague and other punishment. Unfortunately, we often direct our faith toward how we want our prayers to be answered. The notion that prayers are answered by faith has pushed some to the verge of demanding by force.
Faith and Tests
There is a longstanding debate regarding one of Satan’s tests for Jesus in the wilderness. The devil set Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple and said, "If you are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge concerning you; in their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’" (Mt 4:5-6).
The interpretations of the phrases "they shall bear you up" and "throw yourself down" are entirely different between the devil and Jesus. The devil was attempting to trick Jesus into thinking that unless He jumped, He would show no faith in what the Scripture said. However, Jesus knew it was wrong to force God’s hand by jumping. Men misuse "faith" in this manner to force God to take prompt action toward our requests, as if God were a servant. This kind of "faith" tests God.
A genuine faith involves wholehearted trust: knowing that a prayer may not be answered in the time desired, but accepting the decision of God whatever it may be. Regardless whether it is answered today, tomorrow, or never, true faith knows that He will arrange the best in the end.
"What I Wish" vs. Unreasonable Carnal Demands
We repeatedly assume that only prayer in a spiritual tongue is praying completely according to God's will, while praying with the understanding inevitably carries our selfish desires. The former enables us to pray "with groanings which cannot be uttered," but inhibits heartfelt reflection; the latter comes from a sincere and fervent heart, but cannot express as the Spirit can when "we do not know what we should pray for as we ought." How then we should pray?
Does praying in the Spirit disallow any presence of "I"? Would the presence of "I" in a prayer mean it is fulfilling carnal requests? The Lord taught us how we should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven. (Mt 6:8ff)
Did He exclude any presence of "self" in prayer? Even the Lord Himself, in His agony, prayed to God three times on the basis of His own needs: "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Mt 26:39). The Son profoundly hoped that the Father, for whom all things are possible, would first consider the Son's wishes; but if this could not be, then He wished the Father's will be done. Of course, the Lord knew the magnitude of the Father's love would not allow Him to die if it were not necessary. Even still, He carried this thread of hope and was not ashamed to plead three times to the Father, weeping in the sight of His disciples, to be spared of His plight.
"What I wish" is not the same as a carnal demand. If I pray without any of my "self," then it is not my prayer. When Paul said, "For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Rom 8:26), he did not mean that prayer in the Spirit consists only of "groanings which cannot be uttered," without any shred of "what I wish." Paul, like Christ, followed his own feelings and pleaded with God three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. It is through that groaning in the spirit that our requests are made known to God.
Thus, capriciously equating one's "self" with the carnal impulse and stripping prayer of "self" removes that most precious, intimate affection between God and man. Rejecting that connection leaves but a spiritual tongue that only God comprehends. Regrettably, over time, prayers are spoken but no longer heartfelt. While Jesus and Paul prayed in the Holy Spirit, they persisted in telling God "what I wish" and received a "peace which surpasses [my] understanding." Baring our souls to God is the best way to understand what "praying in the Spirit" really means.
A Heart Full of Thanksgiving
To "let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6) without being mired in carnal demands, keep Paul's full exhortation in mind:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Even before you know what lies ahead, entrust everything to God in prayer with earnest supplication and thanksgiving, and with the full assurance that God will arrange what is best. Even when you grieve "though God forsakes me," hold fast in "praising the Lord my Creator." Thus the earnest supplication made from a heart of thanksgiving will transform "what I wish" into the surging power of submission.
The consummate prayer is not merely pouring out your feelings. The consummation of prayer occurs when, after you have told God your wishes, you are able to receive a response that is not what you wished with a heart of thanksgiving—giving thanks that He has heard your prayer, and rejoicing that His grace is sufficient for you. This is the greatest blessing and spiritual grace that comes from praying in the Spirit. Amen.