We have been conditioned to believe that prayer is about bringing our needs to God. Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth here. The Psalms do invite us to “call upon me [God] in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and I will deliver you.” Jesus himself affirms this in the Lord’s prayer where he invites us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” We are to bring our needs to God.
The problem comes when we equate prayer requests with prayer itself; when prayer is only a means to change the mind of God. What happens when God doesn’t bend his will to our own? Will our faith survive when he decides to take our lives in a direction not of our choosing? Will we be forced to conclude that prayer lacks the power to impact our worlds? Or do we understand prayer at all?
I was struck by what CS Lewis had to say about prayer:
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me. (from the movie “Shadowlands”)
No one can deny that needs drive us to pray. Recently a five year old boy in our church was diagnosed with lymphoma and I have never seen my church so galvanized to pray. In this case God answered and the boy’s health was restored. But I don’t believe we convinced God to heal this boy. It was us, not God, that was changed by the experience. We emerged as a people with a deeper appreciation of what it means for God to be the healer.
But what if our problems go deeper than facing unemployment, children who are struggling, friends who are sick and a marriage that is failing? The problem with reducing prayer to a laundry list of requests is that we truly don’t know what we need. It assumes that the things we long for are the things that will make us whole. The truth is that our souls are bent, our hearts misshapen and our desires lack a true center.
The prayer masters who wrote the psalms understood that our hearts needed to be re-centered before we brought our desires to God. It is we that need to be changed, not God. I noticed this the other day as I was studying Psalm 84. Needs are addressed in this psalm, but that doesn’t come until verse 8. The first seven verses are about placing God at the center of his heart, soul and body. That is our deepest need. To have our desires, motivations and bodies orbiting God, the true source of life and wholeness.
What good would it be for us to have all our dreams fulfilled and our needs met if those needs and desires are warped? The psalmist, recognizing this danger, begins his prayer by recentering his heart:
Psalm 84:2 My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Underneath our need for love, security, meaning, adventure and fulfillment is a craving for God who alone can satisfy them. Prayer gets warped when we believe that the need for love will only be met with a satisfying marriage, security comes only from a good job with great benefits, meaning is only found in a successful career, adventure emerges with the next experience and fulfillment comes with achievement. God may choose to give us these things, but our real need is not for the gifts, but for the giver himself.
Psalm 34:7 calls us to “delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” because when you delight yourself in the LORD you will discover that he is the desires of your heart. We all die, economies fail, relationships disappoint and work will never define us, but God will always remain. Our true need can only be met when we allow God to wrap our desires around himself and his dream for the world.