I was recently at a pastors' meeting at which the subject of prayer was being discussed. The general theme was that if we want to see things happen within the church--people saved and healed, the church healthy and growing, the power of God working in and through us--then it all starts with prayer. Prayer must be made a priority. We need to devote time to it, we need to gather together for it, we need to be examples of it.
We also discussed obstacles to that: the sense in Western culture that prayer isn't actually "doing anything," the struggles that some of us experience in keeping focused, the general busyness of our lives, the tendency we have to focus on methodology rather than to rely on God, the fact that the results of prayer are often delayed and we expect instant answers.
Being relatively new to the group, I mainly listened, but as the discussion proceeded, an idea jelled in my mind. All too often, we use prayer as a means to an end--and the end is something we've decided ahead of time, before we begin to pray. (Isn't that, after all, the meaning of the term, "prayer request"?) We are essentially bringing our agenda to God and asking Him (politely, of course) to do our bidding. Yes, we've all heard teaching about various types and stages of prayer, but really, don't we often treat the other stages of prayer merely as prologue? "Adoration, check. Confession, check. Thanksgiving, check. Supplication--okay, now let's get to business." And the reality is that sometimes issues are weighing on our hearts so strongly that pretending to focus on something else amounts to self-deception. We need to be honest with ourselves and God about where we're at.
Nonetheless, I think that using prayer as a means to the end of getting God to enact our agenda is the main reason that we have difficulty with prayer. Quite simply, God isn't going to help us in prayer if that's what we're doing. And we ourselves know at some level that we can't really arm-twist God into doing what we want, so it's difficult to pray with any confidence. And if we don't have God's help or confidence in getting what we want, it's going to be hard to focus, and we're going to feel like we're really not accomplishing anything.
The phrase that kept running through my mind was, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection" (Phil. 3:10). It seems to me that the real object of prayer is for us to get closer to God and become attuned to His agenda. As we are "conformed to the likeness of His Son" (Rom. 8:29), our desires will more closely coincide with His desires, and we can pray with greater confidence that we are praying according to His will. As a matter of fact, the prayer request we started out with might actually have been in His will--but I'm convinced that God is much more interested in who we are becoming than in most of the things we ask of Him.
Paul writes, "I want to know Christ." This is after his conversion, after assisting Barnabas for years in Antioch, after his three groundbreaking missionary journeys, after having written several of his epistles. We tend to look at "knowing Christ" merely positionally: if we're Christians, then we "know Christ." Yet here is one of the greatest Christians who ever lived, deep into his maturity as a believer, still seeking to "know Christ." How much should we be longing to know Him? I know the deepest experiences of prayer that I have had involved simply a desire to seek Him and know Him, with no other agenda whatever.
"And the power of his resurrection." Knowing Christ is the key to His power. But He uses His power for His ends, not ours. We can't just make knowing Him, once again, a means to the end of accessing His power. He's not going to play that game. We have to be tools in His hands if we want to be channels of His power. Miracles happen when we're doing what He wants, not trying to get Him to do what we want.
And then there's the part of the passage that I had forgotten: "and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings." Here's where God's agenda is so often completely different from ours. How much of our prayers involve escaping suffering? Some theologies are built around the idea that if we had God's power, we wouldn't have to experience suffering. Paul says the opposite: that in coming to know Christ and experiencing His power, he actually wants to share in the sufferings of Jesus. This, quite frankly, is beyond me; and yet I at least know where I lack. We may need to go through suffering in order to accomplish God's will in our lives; but if we're submissive to it, He will even redeem the suffering.
Reorienting how we think about prayer is the first step toward reenergizing our prayer lives. I'm tempted here to finish up by suggesting that as we get to know Christ better and become more like Him, the results we were looking for in the first place will follow. I believe this to be true, but isn't that just lapsing back into the same mindset: a means to our own ends? Let's just purpose to become more like Christ. Isn't that the best possible end?