I recently received an encouraging, and also vexing, email from a Christian friend sharing the joy of her pregnancy after years of infertility. It was titled “Prayer Works!” Of course, I am thrilled to share in my friend’s good news. At the same time, her email reminds me that the language of churchianity sometimes promotes a faulty—or at the very least—simplistic, theology.

I think the email might have been better titled, “God Works.” Yes, those of us who had prayed with her got to be part of things through our support and prayers. But, ultimately the miracle of a new life is God’s divine handiwork. I certainly know I can’t take credit for praying diligently or long enough to obligate God to bless her with a child!

Similarly, I was reminded of how often we equate prayer “working” to God answering our prayers in the way we hoped. If this is true, then the unspoken corollary is that if we don’t get the answer we want, then our prayer doesn’t work. While God delights to give us, his children, good things (Matthew 7:11), we need to remind each other that God is just as present and good even when things don’t seem to go our way. Sometimes, God’s goodness is actually demonstrated far better through a negative response to our requests (e.g. think of the eternal significance of God saying “no” to Jesus’ Gethsemane request to avoid the cross).

My friend’s email also reminds me how we can be tempted to value God’s provision more than God the Provider. When we err this way, our prayers are just a means to an end, and God becomes a force we’re trying to manipulate rather than love and depend upon. I believe there is an important difference between bringing our requests to God and trying to persuade God to do our will. Of course it sounds silly when we think about it, but often our prayer habits are like this, aren’t they?

For example, in my church and small group we often spend considerable time “sharing prayer requests” and then repeat them back to God with our eyes closed (in prayer). Did God not hear us the first time? I wonder if sometimes we are a bit like those disciples that Jesus told, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:6, NIV)

I like how Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ teaching on prayer: “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” (Matthew 6:6-9, The Message)

For reflection:

1. What does it look like for you to “shift from you to God” and to “pray very simply”?

2.  Compare your prayer form and style with how you have conversations with your closest friends. How are they similar? How are they different? Why are they different? How would your prayer change if Jesus were literally sitting in chair across from you?

3. As leaders, what can we do to respectfully help others grow/improve in prayer their habits? How can we model intimacy with God?

Kim is a trainer, coach and leadership consultant with Church Resource Ministry in Melbourne, Australia. She is an ordained pastor, ICF certified coach, and has an MDiv and DMin from Fuller Seminary. Her passions include travel, getting a good deal, running, and helping leaders multiply their impact by reproducing more effective leaders.

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