I have met a lot of people who say they seldom pray, because they really don’t know how or they don’t know what to pray about. Others say that they pray on the run, but worry that they should be more other-worldly when they pray. There is a lot of confusion about prayer.
Prayer really isn’t what many people think it is. They ask, “Why pray? I never get what I want.” You would almost think that prayer is like an order to Amazon. Some people seem to think that God is in the business of customer service; if you don’t get what you want, you place your order somewhere else.
Prayer, however, is not about order fulfillment. Prayer is about becoming the person God created you to be. You may petition or intercede for others. You may grieve. You may ask for discernment. You may give thanks or praise God. You may simply wait on the Lord.
Whatever you do when you pray, it is more about entering into God’s work on earth than it is about getting what you want. You might even say that prayer is seldom about getting “results” if by results, you mean that you tell God what to do and he does it. Prayer is about getting yourself rearranged. Prayer is about finding out where you fit in God’s plan, not about fitting God into your plan.
My mother and I had a troubled relationship. The challenges continued long after my teen years. One day, after a particularly difficult disagreement, I went to my mother’s pastor for counsel. We talked for nearly an hour and then he said, “Let’s pray.” I bowed my head and waited for him to pray that my mother would be changed into someone I could get along with, maybe even please. Instead, he prayed about our differences. He asked for grace for each of us to show our love for each other. He prayed that the Holy Spirit would work to transform our relationship. Then he asked me to pray, too.
I don’t usually feel uncomfortable about praying aloud, but I felt nervous that day. Praying in front of a preacher wasn’t the same as praying with my friends. They are my peers, but a preacher is a little bit intimidating. However, I took a deep breath and began to pray. I started by describing how I felt and how my mother was hurting me. Then something happened. Words came out that I had no intention of speaking. I said, “Lord, please help me to see my mother the way you see her.”
I stopped right there. I had gone to the pastor in order to get help. I thought that the help I needed was that my mother should change. I thought the pastor could influence her to change. Even as we were talking, I had mostly focused on the hope that he could somehow motivate her to be different. I never for a moment thought about any need for me to be different. I thought I was fine. I thought I needed to ask God for results, and he needed to provide them. After all, Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive.”
Well, I asked. But I asked for something I didn’t know I wanted. The Holy Spirit worked in me in answer to the pastor’s prayer, and I asked for what I needed instead of what I wanted. That prayer was answered. I began to think about my mother in a different way. I began to see things in her character and personality that had eluded me as long as I was focused on getting her changed so she could get along with me.
That prayer was a turning point in our relationship. It would be a lie to say that we miraculously never argued again. Our relationship was changed, but like all relationship issues, it required time and attention to bring about real healing. The big difference was in my outlook. I truly did begin to see qualities that I had failed to notice and appreciate in my mother. I began to treat her differently, because I saw her in a different light. We lived a great distance apart, and shortly before her death I visited her for a week that was truly the best visit we ever had. The last time we spoke to each other, she didn’t hang up on me. My final words to her were, “I love you,” to which she replied, “Love you, too.”
I didn’t get the “results” I wanted from prayer, but I got the outcome I needed. I asked, and I received, but I didn’t ask what I expected to ask. I received the answer to my request, not the answer to my desire. I didn’t get God to do what I wanted; I turned around and started doing what God wanted. That is the real power of prayer.