“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
The church of the future will be filled with Christians who pray alone, together, in public, in groups, in private and with the expectation that prayer heals the world. Prayer changes us. Prayer molds us. Prayer empowers us. Because prayer isn’t concerned with itself. We don’t pray to become better at praying. We pray to become unified with God.
According to A.W. Tozer, “What we think about when we are free to think about what we will — that is what we are or will soon become.” Once we realize that prayer is the path to God, and we acknowledge that God is everywhere if we open up to His presence, then we also realize that we can pray ceaselessly — at work, at school, on a date, while writing this paragraph. As Tozer also wrote, “It may be difficult for the average Christian to get hold of the idea that his daily labors can be performed as acts of worship acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
Even our exercise can be prayer. For example, from Memorial Day to Independence Day 2017, I prayed for a specific veteran or active duty serviceman while performing “The Murph.” Named in honor of Lt. Michael Murphy, a U.S. Navy SEAL officer who was killed in action in Afghanistan (and who was portrayed by actor Taylor Kitsch in the movie “Lone Survivor”), the Murph is a CrossFit workout that consists of a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and another one-mile run while wearing a 20-poundtactical vest. I prayed while running and concluded by reciting Psalm 91. Most days I did this unaccompanied, miserably enduring my own stubborn commitment, but some days I had friends join with me. I came to love those people very much because nothing is so miserable as Murphing alone.
At first I was reluctant to discuss my daily Murph-prayers, and indeed I have often spoken of my discomfort with public prayer, leading to my reluctance to address the topic at all. When I released my book “How to Be With God: a Primer on Christian Prayer,”I was terrified of the blowback — not because I was suggesting anything unbiblical, but because so many Christians have unbiblical notions about prayer, and I was going to address them with the honest sort of nitpickiness that usually gets me in trouble.
My main concern with how many Christians pray is that we treat prayer like magic. Magic works on formulaic compulsion. Sorcerers cast spells and perform incantations, which is a fancy way of saying that they say the right things and do the right things, which results in the desired outcome, provided they have performed their parts perfectly.
Sadly, that’s how many Christians perceive prayer. We think if we just believe the right things and pray the right ways concerning issues we’re certain we understand, God will answer our prayers in the precise manner of our request. For example, it is common for Christians to think that if they have purged their lives of any deliberate or unconfessed sin and maintain a standard of holy living consistent with Scripture; and if they pray consistently, fervently, humbly, beseeching Jesus Christ by name both when they are alone and, more importantly, when they are gathered with two or three others; and if their request is consistent with the will of God, which includes financial self-sufficiency, physical healing, wisdom, the repentance of wayward loved ones, and the presence of joy rather than anxiety; then it is only a matter of time before God grants their request.
But this simply isn’t true.
There are innumerable times in the life of healthy, holy Christians when their prayers remain unanswered despite meeting the above criteria. Because the circumstances above, even though they can be proof-texted in Scripture, betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God and His communication with us.
What I have described above is spellcasting, not prayer. Again, magic is the system of belief that maintains if our beliefs and our behaviors align perfectly with the powers of the invisible world, we will get what we want.
But prayer isn’t about getting what we want. Prayer is about getting what God wants for us, from us, with us, in us. Consequently, when we pray and ask for things we often short-circuit the process of our development, placing our desires ahead of God’s. The confusion sets in when God, because He is a loving and gracious father who wants to bless His children, sometimes answers our prayers in the way we had hoped, thus setting us up for disappointment every other time He does not. The simplest explanation as to why He does this is still the best: He can do whatever he wants, whenever He chooses, because He is God.
Insofar as we are concerned, we must consider prayer like mentoring. Prayer is how God teaches us to become like God. Prayer is how we become fascinated with God, because Christian prayer is primarily about empowerment, and prayer is the means by which God gets bigger in us.
The church of the future will concern herself with God-centeredness, asking the Father for more of himself and trusting that, with him, all things are possible.
David McDonald, D.Min., is the editor of the FreeMo Journals, the founder of Fossores Global Ministry Development and the author of “Then. Now. Next: a Biblical Vision of the Church, the Kingdom, and the Future” from which this article is adapted.