The Enigma of Prayer

Restful Prayer

The Enigma of Prayer

Prayer is one of those topics where there is no limit to the number of ways people can be made to feel guilty about not measuring up to “what they ought to be doing.” As I enter the final quarter of the race of my mortality (starting to push fifty years a follower of Jesus) my life-long puzzlement over the matter of prayer just gets deeper. These days my prayers are less frequent, shorter in duration (A couple of orders of magnitude less from the days of my youth!) and I don’t say much (I use to think it was my job to inform God about all the things He should be doing). Yet my prayer life is richer and  deeper than ever. I think I may be on to something. 

My entire life has been devoted to, and immersed in both the devotional and formal academic study of scripture. Yet, I know that’s not the beginning and end-all of what it means to follow Jesus. It is just the input of raw material. (See: “It’s Just a Bag of Beans”).  When I sit before the scriptures in study and meditation I end up saying: “Father, after all these years, I still don’t really, truly, deeply, understand a single thing in here. I am so far in over my head. If your Spirit does not open this material to me, all my study will be as a futile as a man trying to hold vapor in his hands. Oh, well. Thank-you.” And then the “moment” happens. The Spirit of the Incarnate Word “presences” the written word. I wipe away tears of wonder like being emotionally moved by a great movie. That’s it. A twenty-second prayer.   

When facing the innumerable, inexplicable, and expansive, manifestations of His undeserved goodnesses I say: “Father, I don’t understand any of this. None of it makes any sense. I don’t get it. Oh, well. Thank-you.” I wipe away tears of thankfulness and joy, and that’s it.

When facing the innumerable pains, disappointments, injustices, woes, needs, heartaches, losses, chronic adversities, dire circumstances, unanswered prayer and disparities of my own life and the lives of those I love I say:  “Father, I don’t understand any of this. None of this makes any sense. I don’t get it. Oh well, we face tomorrow together. Thank-you, for the goodnesses I do see, help me bring more into this world.” I wipe away tears of sorrow, and that’s it.

A funny thing happens. I experience peace and relaxation (KJV and others call it “rest.” The term has become stuffily religious for me.)  of the kind the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief promised us if we would walk in His yoke. I wipe away tears of laughter and that’s it.

I can be dense and a slow learner, but I think I’ve noticed a theme about life. Tears are normal. I think I am going to quit playing the heavenly one-armed-bandit that promises “answers to prayer” if I just keep feeding it with prayer tokens. Las Vegas offers that. Not the Abba of Jesus.

Persevering Prayer – The Parables of Luke 11 and 18

Yeah, but what about persevering and prevailing prayer? Doesn’t Jesus command both?

The Lukan parables of the friend at midnight and the unjust judge are frequently used by prayer and intercession ministries to motivate so-called “persevering prayer,” “bombing heaven,” or “storming heaven gates, and the like. These are metaphors (some quite poor) for unrelenting prayer to get our “petitions” (code for, whatever we want at the moment) answered by God. Using these as proof-texts for this purpose is a grossly irresponsible mishandling of the scripture. Proof-texting people–leaders–pastors–whomever, do it all the time.

Luke 11 – The Friend at Midnight

The context of Luke 11 is the disciples seeing Jesus pray a certain way and they want to pray like He does. They ask: “Teach us to pray.” He shares the so-called Lord’s Prayer and then goes into the parable of the friend at midnight. The point of the parable is that even though it is annoying, a friend will get up to respond to a friend’s request.

The proof-texter will shout: “See, there it is. We need to pester, I mean ‘petition’ God like the man in the parable! Jesus says so!”

Not at all. This is a “how much more so” parable of contrast. The point is, our heavenly Father is not like the friend. He does not need to be “nagged” under the guise of persevering prayer to respond to us! Most importantly, Jesus specifically defines what we will get from God. Why don’t we stick with what He said? It is not every whim and desire of our heart realized. Jesus says: ” . . .  so your Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!  The promised “answer to prayer” is the person of the Holy Spirit who will teach us to pray like He does! This links the matter back to the disciples original question.

Also, the alleged “asking, seeking and knocking”–so often used in prayer ministries– is in the same context! It is about receiving the Person, means, and power of being able to pray that is found only in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the resurrected God-man, the Spirit of Prayer. It has absolutely nothing to do with our “prayer lists” of things we want to see happen. We are promised Someone who will teach us how to pray correctly. Period. That is it. Any application beyond this is illegitimate.

Luke 18 – The Widow Before the Unjust Judge

This parable is also a “how much more so” parable of contrast. The whole point is our Father is not like the judge in the parable! He is better than that. He does not have to be nagged.  Secondly, the specific context that Jesus gives is mistreatment and injustice. The parable is dealing with the seeming delay of God in vindicating the righteous. This parable has absolutely no application as a model of “perseverance in prayer” to see our prayer wish-lists answered.


Lastly, the concept of quietness and stillness in prayer is virtually lost in common Evangelicalism, especially the Pentecostal/Charismatic kind (My heritage). I cannot tell you the number of times I have told groups of “prayer warriors” to just be quiet–less politely at times–to shut up and stop with the prophets-of-Baal-frenzy-masquerading as “prophetic acts” of significance. Sigh. We are so busy talking, informing God, and carrying-on with nonsense and noise in our meetings there isn’t a crease God can get through to commune with us if He wanted to. It’s not His problem. It’s ours. 

When I was a traditional pastor I once asked our congregation to be absolutely still and quiet for three minutes. No background music, no singing, nothing. The anxiety it created was palpable and the inability to do it said a lot about that specific congregation, us as “Christians,” and our culture in general. Our culture, civic and spiritual, cannot stand silence.  Every moment of every day must be filled with sound be it a doctor’s office, a restaurant, or a home where the TV is on all the time (often at deafening levels) whether anyone is watching or not, or “Christian worship” (sic) music non-stop.  The most fearful thing for the modern human is to be alone with his or her thoughts.  Our Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters have a much better grasp on the disciplines of silence.


If there is a “perseverance” in prayer it is persevering long enough to get the noisy clatter out of our brains, so we can “hear” the “voice” of the Spirit of God who alone will lead us into effective and prevailing prayer. Prayers born in and from the counsel of God in Christ are the only ones that prevail. He is looking for partners. If we could just shut up long enough to allow Him to speak, our prayers will be of a different essence, quality, and effectiveness. 


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