I always want to have a rational, thought-out reason for doing things. I rarely, if ever, make decisions on gut instinct. Impulse shopping is a nonsensical concept in my universe.
So there is something strangely perturbing about prayer. My brain cannot make head nor tail of the idea. And for me, that’s fairly unsettling.
God knows everything, including the random stuff that whizzes through my head, unspoken and unarticulated. Why do I need to consciously tell Him what I’m thinking, or even bother to actually ask for things, when He already knows them? I mean, Jesus himself tells the crowds during the Sermon on the Mount that God knows what we need before we even ask him (Matthew 6:8).
There’s another puzzlingly irrational side to prayer. Our perfect God has already worked out in eternity what He is going to do. I’m fairly confident He is not making things up as He goes along. And His decisions and choices are obviously the best ones.
When I ask Him to do X or Y, there are two options. Either I have asked him to do a good thing, which He has already decided to do and would have done without me asking. Or, I’ve prayed for something He wasn’t going to do because it’s not the best option. In which case, He will continue not doing it, like He was before I opened my mouth.
So, my train of thought completes its journey here: God already knows what we think, and it seems we cannot make Him do something He wasn’t already going to. In the cold, rational light of day, doesn’t that make prayer supremely irrelevant?
And yet, and yet. The Bible is steeped in prayer. Jesus’ life and ministry was fuelled by it. The New Testament writers continually exhort the early Christians reading their letters to pray, pray, and then pray a bit more.
Straight after telling everyone that God can read their minds before they pray to him, Jesus lays out his gold standard for how to talk to God: the Lord’s Prayer. And it includes the lines: “Give us today our daily bread,” and “Lead us not into temptation”. It seems that Jesus still thinks there might be value in asking God for good things we would hope He was going to do anyway.
I’m left with this disconnect between how I try and mostly fail to make sense of prayer and what I know I must do, which is to keep on praying. I don’t really know why, and sometimes I don’t even know how, but I know I should.
At times, I think if prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind, maybe it’s about changing me. I know some of the most meaningful answers to prayer I’ve had can be seen not in how my circumstances changed but how I can see, usually only with hindsight, how God began to change me as I prayed.
I remember how God began to give me an urgent longing for my non-Christian friends to know Jesus – after I started trying to pray for them every day. I look back on how I discovered a genuine interest in reading the Bible – after I began my quiet times by asking God to speak to me from the text. Or, how I came to trust in God’s provision more – only after I got so desperate about not having anywhere to live that I prayed about it.
And when I examine who I am now, I see I only fitfully yearn for my friends to become Christians, and even more rarely read the Bible out of interest rather than duty. I trust in myself and not God, by and large. Why? Probably because I’ve stopped praying.
I know that doesn’t make any logical sense. God’s plan for me must always be to evangelise, study the scriptures, and trust Him. But, it seems like those kind of things only happen – only go more than skin-deep – when I’m committed to praying about them.
I don’t know if that’s because God is holding back until I ask. Perhaps it’s only when I am asking him every day that I’m open to letting God reshape my heart’s desires. Maybe God just wants me to give up my childish insistence on figuring everything out about the mystery of prayer and to just start praying.