The Forgotten Purpose of Prayer
What to do When We Mostly Pray to Get Something From God
Some years ago, it occurred to me that my decades long frustration with prayer came from one source: I mostly prayed to get something from God. And He seemed about as reliable as a Las Vegas gambling table. But still I rolled the dice and called it prayer.
And asking for what we want is legitimate prayer, in at least one specified sense. Listen to Paul wanting something from God. “God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart” (Romans 1: 9 NLT). Notice 2 telling observations. One, Paul was asking for something from God for someone else. And two, he tied his prayer to his commitment to serve God’s purpose, wanting only for himself and others what advanced the drama of God’s LARGER STORY. Certainly praying that oneself and others would be living in a way that furthered God’s purposes is legitimate prayer.
I fear, however, looking back over many years, that my prayers for something from God fell short of Paul’s example. As I reflect on my prayer life and listen to the prayers of many others, requests fill the verbal space, for me and others, with little concern with what God is up to in each of our lives. The requests run along 2 lines. Either we long to feel peace in tough times, to know joy when life has us down, and to claim hope that shattered dreams will rebound. Or we pray along more practical lines, wanting the blessings of life: a safe plane trip; healing from illness in our body or clear guidance when faced with an important decision; and a host of other understandably desired blessings, some little, some big, that we wish for every day. It seems much of our praying is similar to placing our order at a restaurant, sometimes, it is true, for others, more often for ourselves.
My one effort to write about prayer came in a book titled The PAPA Prayer. I wondered what we might mean by a rarely heard phrase: relational prayer. I did not discard the legitimacy of making requests known to God. Petitionary prayer has its place. But I wanted to think about prayer intended to deepen our relationship with God, prayer that fostered the enjoyment of intimacy with God, believing that no good is greater.
PAPA was handy as an acronym with the added advantage of focusing on God as our Papa, an endearing comfortable term for Father. I organized the 4 letters as follows.
P: present yourself as you are to God, no pretense, no hiding. Come to Him humbled by your nakedness, depending on merciful love for any response.
A: attend to who it is you’re coming to, the Almighty Father, the resurrected Jesus who John met in Revelation chapter one, the Spirit of divine life within us. The effect of such attending would be to bow our heads in hope, to fall down with joy of what will come from such a God.
P: purge yourself. Confess and repent of whatever comes to mind as you ask God to search your heart for anything that offends Him (see Psalm 139: 24).
A: approach God boldly, knowing the blood of Christ has opened a new and living way to enter the Most Holy Place (see Hebrews 10: 19, 20). Without Christ’s shed blood, one step into that place would mean immediate death. But not now!
PAPA was my effort to think of prayer as my preeminent opportunity to know God, to relate with the Trinity, to enjoy God as I enjoy no one else. My hope was to introduce a great shift in how I prayed, from wanting to get something from God as my first thing, my strongest desire, to wanting – may I put it this way? – to “get” God Himself, to draw near into the joy of relationship with each member of the Trinity (see Communion with God, by John Owens), a joy designed by the Father for us to experience, a joy made possible through the suffering of the Son, and a joy brought to life by the Spirit.
The shift is not commonly made. Someone is sick. We pray for them to feel God’s peace and to experience His healing power. He is the Great Physician. Could that really be a second thing prayer? Might a first thing prayer have more to do with awakening the ill person’s longing to know the reality of God in a measure that releases what is untouchably alive and well in that person’s saved soul? Is that relational prayer? I think so.
A friend loses his job. We pray that God will surround him with confidence that all things do work together for good; and of course the good we have in mind is restored employment. Another second thing prayer, legitimate if it remains in second place. To know God well enough to trust His eternal good purpose during long months of no income would, I suggest, be a first thing prayer. Keep first thing prayer in first place and second thing prayer has a place. Who knows? Maybe God will provide an unexpected job, one even more fulfilling and with better pay. I suspect one way of evaluating whether prayer for deeper enjoyment of God no matter the circumstances is your first thing prayer is to pay attention to which prayer – prayer for the first thing or prayer for second things – is offered with more passion.
The Bible gives three pictures that each provides a unique angle on what is possible in our relationship with God. Let me mention all 3 then focus on the third picture.
- We are the BUILDING of God, where the Spirit lives, calling us to invite others to share in the party going on in this building that we’re enjoying.
- We are the BODY of God, equipped by the Spirit to live under the leadership of the head of our body, Jesus Christ, and in so doing to reveal Him by the way we think, live, and relate.
- We are the BRIDE of Christ, wonderfully dressed in wedding attire that brings delight to our divine husband as we share a level of soul strengthening and soul enjoying intimacy available in no-other relationship.
In order to most clearly understand relational prayer, it will be most helpful to focus on each of us as the bride of Christ, on the relationship between husband and wife that corresponds uniquely to our relationship with Christ as His bride. The more I thought about that unimaginable relationship, to yield ourselves to the Lord who longs to enter us with power to live in a certain way and to bear fruit in the process, the more I sensed some revision was needed in the PAPA acronym. I wanted to get closer to first thing prayer, prayer designed not centrally to win blessings from God but rather to deepen our enjoyment of God Himself. Could a child enjoy the presence of her father even if no gifts were stacked beneath the tree? Could that be the essence of first thing prayer?
My suggested revision of the PAPA prayer looks like this:
P: As Christ’s bride, present yourself to be entered by the Spirit. Make known where you are – wherever – but not merely to share with God what He already knows. I’m finding it to be a rather decisive shift from reciting my list of emotions and struggles and blessings to presenting myself to be entered by the literal life of God.
“God, I cannot with integrity be where I’m not. Here I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Only by Your grace can I believe You actually want to move into my heart, mind, and soul. I await Your entrance.”
A: Looking to my divine husband, I attend to Jesus Christ, who takes great pleasure in revealing Himself to an open soul. One of Francis Schaeffer’s many books was titled He is There and He is Not Silent. God longs to speak to His people, to give us what is best, Himself.
“God, I long to know You, to recognize Your unfailing beauty when my night is dark. I await Your revealing.”
P: I’m then to purge myself, to do my part in asking God to reveal not only His beauty but what remains ugly in me, particularly what is ugly in the way I relate to others in every relationship – spouse, child, friend, acquaintance, a clerk at the grocery store – I want to be more sensitive to how I fail another than to how another fails me.
“God, introduce me to the joy of brokenness over my relational sin, and of course, my behavioral sin, yielding to whatever pleasure has become addictive. Let me clearly see that my way of being with another is more concerned with my well-being than theirs. I await Your cleansing.”
A: Approach the Most High Place, nearness to God where joy is most fully alive, and do so boldly. Dare to enter His presence, knowing that without the covering of Christ’s righteousness I would be instantly killed. But with His covering of shed blood, I can be confident of being forever embraced, leading me further into the infinite wonder of His love.
“GOD, I come, just as I am without one plea but that your blood was shed for me. You want me to come. O God, I await Your drawing me closer to Yourself.”
Caution: this is not a formula for success that guarantees the experience of God that we long for. It is rather a way of thinking that guides our way of relating to God that grants the opportunity, in His sovereign timing, to know God, to enjoy Him, and to enjoy being known by Him.
May relation prayer find its way into first place in our prayer life, thus allowing petitionary prayer its legitimate second place status. Do I want something from God? Everyday. But the more I’m in touch with the deepest thirst in my soul. The move I realize I want God Himself. He is always and forever the first thing.
*If you are interested in reading more about the PAPA Prayer, you can purchase my book here: The PAPA Prayer: The Prayer You’ve Never Prayed.