What does prayer do?
Prayer is talking to God. Sometimes, however, actual words are not needed, so prayer is thinking to God. When we pray, we focus on God and we open our hearts and minds so that we can clearly communicate with him.
Wait a minute—haven’t we said that God already knows our thoughts? Doesn’t he know our hearts even before we pray? Psalm 139 begins, “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away . . . You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.”
If God knows everything we think and feel, then why do we bother to pray? Because prayer is God’s way of helping us focus on him. We pray for our benefit, not God’s. He doesn’t need our prayers to know what we’re thinking . . . but sometimes we do. Prayer forces us to gather our thoughts and put our feelings into words, and then to take those thoughts and feelings and give them to God.
Why do we pray? We do not pray because God needs to know what we need. In Matthew 6:8, Jesus said, “Your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” We pray because God wants to fellowship with us, and he is happy when we bring our needs to him.
Let’s say you have a puppy that you love a lot. Your puppy needs food, water, toys, and companionship to be a happy dog. You know that he needs these things, and you’re happy to provide them because you love your puppy. If your puppy is like most dogs, he shows you his gratitude by greeting you at the door, wagging his tail, smiling at you, and sometimes simply by sitting and your feet and looking at you as if you’re the center of his world. A dog uses his eyes, his tail, and his body language to communicate his needs and his love.
What if your puppy stopped doing those things? What if he never met you at the door, never smiled at you, never even looked up when you came into the room. What if he never begged for a treat or wagged his tail when you fed him? What if he behaved as if you had suddenly ceased to exist? If he never “communicated” with you at all?
Unfortunately, this is how many people behave with God. God gives them air to breathe, food to eat, and more blessings than they can count, but they act as if he doesn’t exist. They never talk to him, never ask him for anything, and never thank him for the good things he’s done. They behave as though they’re responsible for the good things in their lives, or they’ll chalk their success up to “luck.”
Sorry, but luck has nothing to do with anything. God controls the world, and he wants his creations—men, women, children—to look up and communicate with him to the best of their ability. Maybe you’re not sure what words to use when you speak to God—that’s okay, because just like you understand the wag of your puppy’s tail, God understands your heart.
Pray because you want God to act. James 4:2 says, “You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure!”
Remember this—God has a plan for your life. Like an author, he has already laid out his plan. The psalmist says, “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.”
Life would be simple if we knew the end of our story, wouldn’t it? If we could read God’s book and understand his plan, maybe we’d find life easier. If I had known, for instance, that God wanted me to be a writer, maybe I wouldn’t have taken all those music lessons.
But—God’s plan for me involved those music lessons. I’ve written books about musicians, and the work was easier because I did take piano and voice lessons. So even the things I now might consider a waste of time have a purpose in God’s plan!
When we pray for things that are in God’s plan for our life, he often brings them to pass immediately. Sometimes he makes us wait before he answers those prayers. If we have to wait, we can grow in maturity and wisdom before God acts.
When we pray for things that are not in God’s plan for our life, he says no. There’s a country song about a man who runs into an old girlfriend, and when he sees her, he thanks God for “unanswered prayers” . . . because he found another woman who became his wife.
Sometimes we pray for something and God lets us have it . . . along with the pain that something brings. Sometimes we pray for sick people who die . . . and we have to trust that God knows what he is doing even when what he’s doing makes no sense to us.
God uses prayer to change us. Since God is unchanging, the person most changed through prayer is US. When we pray, we recognize that God is the creator of the universe, and that he is the boss. If your prayer list looks more like a Christmas list for Santa Claus, you’re probably praying with the wrong attitude. Prayer isn’t about running down a list of things you want—prayer is telling God what you need and then asking him to work his will in your life.
How can you know if you’re using the right attitude when you pray? Jesus gave us the answer in Matthew 6. “When you pray,” he said, “don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven [acknowledge that God is your Father through Jesus]
may your name be kept holy. [acknowledge that God is the boss.]
May your Kingdom come soon. [focus your thoughts on heaven, not earth]
May your will be done on earth, [acknowledge that you want God’s plan most of all]
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need, [ask for physical needs]
And forgive us our sins, [ask for spiritual needs]
As we have forgiven those who sin against us. [remember that you must forgive]
And don’t let us yield to temptation, [pray for spiritual strength]
but rescue us from the evil one.” [pray for spiritual protection]
When should you pray? Some religions pray five times a day, some three times a day, some once a day. How often should a Christian pray?
All the time! 1 Thess. 5:17 tells us, “Never stop praying.” This doesn’t mean that we walk around with our heads bowed and eyes closed, but it means that we shouldn’t give up! We should always be in a spirit of prayer; always aware that God is listening. And when you start praying for someone, don’t give up if God doesn’t answer right away. He has a purpose for delay, and you can trust him to always be working for your best.
What does it mean to “pray in Jesus’ name?” Some people think that to say, “In Jesus’ name, Amen” at the end of a prayer is like writing, “Sincerely yours, John” at the end of a letter. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we’re doing a lot more than being polite. We’re claiming a promise that’s found in John 14:13: “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father.”
This does NOT mean that Jesus’ name is like a magic charm, and that by reciting “in Jesus’ name” you’ll magically get what you’ve prayed for. Instead, it means that you’re asking God for something because you belong to Jesus, so you’re asking on his authority.
If you were to go to my bank and ask for $100 from my account, they wouldn’t give it to you. They’d probably laugh at you. But if you were to give them a check with my name and signature on it, they’d give you the $100. Why? Because you would be demonstrating that you know me, and that I’ve given you permission to get the money.
In the same way, we can approach the Creator of the universe because we know Jesus and he’s given us permission to approach the almighty God. That’s why we pray in Jesus’ name.
Look at 1 John 5:13-15:
“I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.”
When we pray in Jesus’ name, we should be praying in the right attitude—in an attitude that pleases him. That means we aren’t praying selfishly, or for things to please only ourselves. We are asking for things that please him and are part of God’s plan for our lives. If we pray that way and ask for those things, Jesus promises that our prayers will be answered.
Memory Verse: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
1. Have you had a particular prayer answered? Tell us about it.
2. Have you been praying and asking for something that you haven’t yet received? Do you think you’re praying for something that pleases God? Why do you think God hasn’t answered yet?
3. Does God hear the prayers of people who don’t believe in Jesus? Discuss your opinions, then read John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (Obviously, God “hear” everything, but he has promised to answer only those who come to him through Jesus.)
4. When we are upset and don’t even know how to pray, do we have someone who will help us? To discover the answer, read Romans 8:26-27: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.”
Next week we’ll learn about some other helpers God has sent us!