Monday, July 23, 2012

The Nature and Purpose of Prayer

    Prayer is the most elemental aspect of religion. Without it no meaningful relationship with God can exist. Yet prayer is an often misunderstood exercise, and the likely reason for this is that religion itself is misunderstood. What ought to be a form of personal communication with God instead becomes a kind of magical incantation, or even worse, an empty ritual.
    Most of the Sermon on the Mount is aimed at Jewish traditionalism as in manifested itself in Jesus' day. But in the middle of His discussion about prayer Jesus takes aim at a practice more typical of the pagan Gentiles, the practice of "vain repetitions" (Matt. 6:7,8). In the pagan religions of the ancient Near East the gods were often willful and capricious, given to fits of envy and baseless anger. Their actions, however, were thought to have an impact on earthly life, and thus a kind of prayer was offered up, usually with some sort of sacrifice. But there was no real assurance that the offering would be accepted or the prayers heard.
    One particularly vivid example of this is recorded in the Old Testament. In I Kings 18 the prophet Elijah has his famous confrontation on Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal. The prophets of Baal were challenged to lay a sacrifice on an altar and then call upon their god to consume it with fire from heaven. The text says that the false prophets called on Baal all morning, crying out "O Baal, hear us!" (v. 26). The prophets continued, they even lacerated themselves "as was their custom" (v. 28). "But there was no voice, no one answered, no one paid attention" (v. 29; NKJV).
    Aside from the fact that Baal was not a real god and did not actually exist, the actions of the prophets betrayed a serious misunderstanding of how prayer is supposed to function. Jesus put it like this: ". . . they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Matt. 6:7). In other words, in the pagan view the response of the deity was tied to the length of the prayer, either in a mechanical fashion, as in a magical incantation, or by way of merit – you earn your way into the god's favor through your effort. Either conception is false. God is sovereign and is not moved by the leverage of a ritualistic formula. But He is compassionate and desires to forgive and bless. "For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him" (v. 8). What He is looking for from us is a simple acknowledgement of our dependence upon Him as the source of our wellbeing, and this can be done in few words as well as many.
    In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God . . ." When there is a consciousness of being in the presence of God, there will be a profound reverence at the majesty of His being. Our prayers will be humble, sincere, and to the point, the very opposite of a mechanical recitation of a set formula. O that God would grant us the Spirit of genuine prayer!

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