Prayer is a lot like vegetables, only a lot better. We know it’s good for us, and there are plenty of passages and people telling us to do it, yet like a two year old in a high chair who refuses to eat his broccoli, we often refuse to pray.
Prayer is hard for so many reasons. We are busy. We are lazy. We are worldly. We are distracted. We don’t know where to start. And the list goes on.
Our hesitation to pray is strange, given the sweetness we’ve experienced in prayer. Isn’t it true that something fights against the idea to attend, for example, a church prayer meeting? Yet on the way home we are thankful, even thrilled, that we went?
But then the cycle repeats itself. Our prayer lives ebb and flow. There are days when prayer thrills our souls and then there are days when prayer feels like an impossibil-ity, or worse yet, like the most boring, irrelevant thing we could ever do.
Literally hundreds of books have been written about prayer. Yet it’s something we still find defeating, elusive, and mysterious. We know it’s really important, which only tends to add to our guilty feelings. We hear of godly prayer warriors and former saints whose lives were devoted to prayer, those people who woke up at 3 am to pray for 4 hours, and we leave feeling about 10% motivation and 90% shame. Whatever resolutions we make tend to hit the fan by about the third morning and then we’re back to square one.
All the things above describe me. Prayer is both one of the highest enjoyments and biggest frustrations of my Christian experience. Yet I have been helped by wrestling with the question of what prayer actually is. What is prayer? That’s what I’d like to unpack in this brief article.
Prayer is like a diamond: the more we examine it the more we discover that its beauty and brilliance is multifaceted.
I recently discovered one of those facets tucked away in one of the more obscure Old Testament books: 2 Chronicles. This is the same book that can feel to Bible readers like an anesthetic: if we’re not careful we can become numb to the Spirit’s leading as we read through the meticulous accounts of names, dates, and bloodlines.
But there it was, this riveting account of one of the many kings of Judah, the one with the funny name: Jehoshaphat. It doesn’t teach us everything about prayer, but what it does teach us is potentially paradigm shifting, at least it was for me.
The context is simple enough: King Jehoshaphat, once successful, was now in serious trouble. One day as he was enjoying the kingly life in his royal palace, a report was brought to him that said three nations were marching toward Judah to attack him, and they were a mere 25 miles away.
I love what 2 Chronicles 20:3 said he did first: “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” In his fear, his first instinct was to pray.
It’s a sign of maturity when our first instinct is to pray, when our default setting is to seek the throne of grace for mercy. But too often this is not our first instinct. Why? Be-cause we’ve got resources. We’ve got connections. We’ve got a plan. We’re smart, and we think we know how to fix things.
Jehoshaphat had resources. He was the king! Yet the first thing he did was call a prayer meeting. How more effective might our churches be if our default setting was set to prayer? If our first instinct was to call a prayer meeting?
It’s what he prayed at the end of his prayer that really struck me when I first heard it. It opens up an entire vista of vital truths about the nature of prayer. It comes in vs. 12, “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” Isn’t that great!
The key to a vibrant prayer life is feeling the consistent and ongoing reality of our powerlessness, coupled with a confident trust in the ability and graciousness of the living God.
Jehoshaphat’s resources weren’t going to cut it. The enemy armies were too big, too mighty, and way too close. He didn’t have time to put together a plan. They were coming, and there was nothing he could do to stop them. Except pray.
Prayer was his only lifeline. He sensed the sheer impossibility of the situation, and in his weakness turned to the only One who could deliver him.
And until we see ourselves this way, unless we come to the point of utter powerless-ness, we’ll tend to avoid prayer because we think other options are still available.
John Onwuchekwa, in his book, “Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church,” writes, “Where prayer is absent, it reinforces the assumption that we’re okay without him.” In other words, prayerlessness is just a symptom of a deeper issue: pride.
When we go a day without praying, we’re essentially telling God that we can handle what’s on our plate by ourselves. When we live without prayer, it’s like we’re drafting our own declaration of independence. I’ve got this. Whatever hills I must climb today, I think I’ve got the inner strength to power through.
But the king knew better. So in his fearful desperation, he calls out to God. He acknowledges that he doesn’t have the answers. “We do not know what to do.” But he knows who does. “…but our eyes are on you.”
Prayer is fixing our eyes on God in faith. It’s looking up to the only one who can de-liver us out of our temptations, troubles and trials. And it’s resting in the God who not only can do all things, but loves to take care of His children.
Standing in the assembly, not knowing what will happen next, Jehoshaphat lifts up his voice and says, vs. 6-7, “O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?”
He clings by faith to the power and promises of his covenant keeping God. His nerves do not paralyze him. Rather, the king of all the land prays to the King of all the world, and in doing so he teaches us something about what prayer is.
Prayer is the practical expression of our weaknesses and powerlessness as we com-municate with the living God who alone is able to do above and beyond what we could ever ask or even imagine.
Learning this has helped my prayer life. I’m slowly learning the hard ugly fact: I can do nothing on my own. My enemies are far too strong and I’m way too weak. I’m learning that I don’t just get to pray (which is an absolute miracle wrought through the atoning work of Jesus Christ), but that I need to pray.
For I am powerless, and I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on you. Now that’s prayer!
by Rev. Michael Schout