I think having questions about prayer is not only natural, but asking and pondering questions is important in developing our relationship with God and strengthening out prayer life. This article poses some, but certainly not all, questions that, I think, many people have.
What is prayer? What happens when we pray?
Prayer is effective communication with God: effective
because it involves the release of energy and because it gets something done; communication because while it makes use of words, it is more than words, and because it is not a monologue but a dialogue; with God. Several things happen when we pray: we relate to God who wishes to be in close relationship with us; we project energy towards persons, situations and needs; we set in motion a unifying process within ourselves, between persons and between God and ourselves. In prayer we not only present our needs but also express our thanksgivings, our praise, our offerings, our hopes for ourselves and others, and our confessions to God. We also hear from God in words and images.
Why should we pray?
We pray for several reasons: because we are told to (I Thess. 5:17); because human experience teaches us that it is a source of understanding and strength, and a unifying source and a means of growth.; because by it we can help others (II Cor. 1:6); and because it is a way to the healing of minds, bodies, human relationships and the inner self.
How do we know that our prayers are being heard?
A certain way of knowing that our prayers are being heard is by experiencing the results of prayer. They are “heard” when situations, attitudes, circumstances, hopes, fears, and relationships, are changed. While the outcome of prayer may not be what we expect, we can be assured that God has honoured our prayer.
Why do our prayers often seem to go unanswered?
- At times we have decided ahead of time what the answer should be, and either it doesn’t come, or comes in a different way, and we don’t recognize it.
- Maybe the answer we seek is contrary or inappropriate to God’s will and plans. We tend to look at things from our own point of view, and the answer we are looking for may not be what is best for others. A trivial example may be a situation in which a vacationer is praying for sun and no rain, while a farmer in the same area may be praying for rain for his crops.
- God has given humans the gift of free will, and people are going to make decisions and do things that are not in everybody’s best interest, but God is not going to intervene in every case.
My own view is that it is much more important, and useful, for us to pray that God helps us to respond in a Christian way to the situations in which we find ourselves in, rather than praying that God will change the situation.
How should we pray about world situations?
Pray about big things that seem beyond our power to influence, with confidence and with disciplined
concentration. There are many examples in Scripture and elsewhere, where the prayers of small people have affected big change. It can be likened to voting in an election. The votes of many affect the outcome. I have written in an earlier article in this series that it can be useful to think of our prayers for others as lowering the barriers around a person or situation, thus allowing God’s healing power to work effectively.
What are some of the ways people receive guidance from God about what they are praying about?
- External circumstances sometimes give us a clue;
- Sometimes God speaks to us through other persons without their being aware of our need;
- If we read our Bibles regularly, we may find an answer in the course of our regular reading;
- God makes His will and plans known to us by way of our minds; and
- On occasion, but not often, God speaks to us in such a way as to be heard, seen or sensed in other ways. In such instances, the message usually consists of a few simple, direct and unmistakable words.
How can we avoid wandering minds in our prayers?
My suggestions are to:
- Relax; if we make too great an effort to concentrate, we become more interested in the conflict than in the result;
- Remember that the problem is not unique to you;
- Treat it lightly. A good example is St Clare, who was often distracted in prayer. She accepted the reality of those distractions, acknowledged them, and finished her prayer at peace with God, and a quiet heart. In prayer we need to go gently with ourselves. Make an act of your will: reach out, grab your mind, bring it back to God and put it to work.
How can we clear our minds so that we can hear God?
We can clear our minds by an act of will in which we deliberately empty our minds; by keeping our mind open, still and receptive; and by patient, passive listening, giving God an opportunity to speak. Prayer is a two-way conversation in which we should give God at least equal time.
Is there a difference between the prayer of praise and the prayer of thanksgiving?
Yes. In praise, we thank God for who he is. In thanksgiving, we thank God for what he does.
If you have other questions about prayer, I encourage you to ask your pastor or spiritual advisor about them. I would also be pleased to discuss them with you.