Prayer is a vital part of who we are as believers. It is the way that we express our dependence on God. As we think about prayer in this post, I would like to suggest that Jesus’ name, Immanuel, can help shape our understanding of prayer. If you want to read a good book about prayer, I highly recommend David Crump’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” published by IVP.
I don’t know about you, but prayer has always been a bit of a conundrum for me. It has been hard to wrap my mind around it. I would listen to what people would say about it and then try to put into practice the things they said. But, it didn’t seem to work like they said it would. So, one day in absolute frustration, I decided not to read another book about prayer. I had unfortunately just bought a couple thick books on prayer by E. M. Bounds. But, I decided to just let them collect dust on the shelf. I asked Jesus to teach me about prayer. Even though I had grown to mistrust all that I had been taught, I had confidence in Jesus. I knew I could trust him to teach me the truth. But, I have to admit, taking that step was a bit scary.
It took awhile, but the first thing that Jesus taught me was that he was present in the world and actively working in it. Now, if God is present and actively working in the world, why don’t I see more miracles, why don’t I see more happening?
What I learned was that I had been looking for the evidence of his hand in the wrong places. My expectations on how God works were created neither by the Word of God or by my personal walk with God, but by other people’s experiences of God. The first step toward my own personal freedom from frustration in prayer was to stop having expectations about how God should work, and just allow God to work through me as he wanted.
Although the way to walking with God is open to each and every one of us, how our relationship with God actually gets lived out is often significantly different for each one of us. This is because none of us are the same. There will be similarities among us all because the Law of Jesus is the same and the fruit of the Spirit is the same; but, the ways in which God speaks to us and works out his life through us can be vastly different.
The second thing that Jesus taught me is that he is Immanuel. This means that God is with me. God is not just present in the world; he is present in me and around me. Wherever I am, he is with me. And he is not just with me, but he is with all his people, all of us. God is with us, present among us, and working in and through us.
This is why prayer is so important. It is the act that we do that intentionally affirms this truth- that God is present with us and working in, among, and through us. Prayer can be expressed in a variety of ways, such as talking, asking, complaining, lamenting, crying, sighing, interceding, pleading, adoring, blessing, and simply being with God. There is almost no end to its variety. The way it is expressed kind of depends on our circumstances. But at its basic level, it is honestly and transparently interacting with our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This truth of God being Immanuel- with us- is a truth highlighted in Mark 11:15-26. In this passage Jesus teaches us that we are the dwelling place of God. In addition, Jesus teaches us that we are to be a house of prayer for all nations. And as we work together with Him to see his Kingdom established in all the nations, if we encounter a mountain of opposition, when we pray he will respond to our prayers and the mountain will be removed. Now the mountain may not be removed as we expect, but it will be removed. Of this God wants us to be certain. The reason we pray is because God has invited us to take an active role in seeing these mountains removed.
In Mark 11:22 Jesus exhorts us to have faith in God. By this he meant that we are to believe in God, that he does what he says, that he is with us as he has promised, and he wants to be actively involved in what we are doing. Prayer invites him to be involved.
This point is repeated in Mark 9:14-29. In this passage the disciples could not drive out the demon who had been harassing a young boy since his birth. These verses teach us that we should never take God’s presence for granted or think that due to our previous successes in ministry then somehow the power of God is inherently at our disposal. We are to be constantly dependent upon God, looking to him at all times.
In Mark 14:32-42 we learn through Jesus’ Agony in the Garden that if we have developed the habit of being dependent as Jesus had, we will be able to stand strong in a time of extreme testing.
In the Agony in the Garden we also learn that prayer is not magic, it is not a vehicle to access divine power to make all our problems disappear. There is suffering that we have to go through in this world.
This truth is reinforced in “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge” in Luke 18:1-8. In this parable we discover that we are a people who will suffer from injustice just as Jesus himself suffered from injustice. Even though we are faithful to pray, we may find that the difficulties we encounter don’t simply disappear. Due to this we may be tempted to think that our prayers aren’t doing anything. So, we may be tempted to give up on prayer and even on Jesus.
To counter this temptation, Jesus teaches us in Luke 18:1-8 and in “The Parable of the Rude Neighbor” in Luke 11:5-13 that God is lovingly predisposed to hearing our prayers. God is Immanuel. He is ever present with us. Therefore, he is ever listening to us, always aware of us, and always aware of what we are going through. He is so aware of us because he loves us dearly. God is nothing like the unjust judge or the sleeping neighbor. God is never bothered by us, and never reluctant to respond. Our Father hears our prayers and is quick to respond, but in his perfect way. His response may be to give us the grace we need to carry us through a situation rather than quickly resolving it. Due to this, Jesus asks us to hold on in faith, putting our complete confidence in him when the times are rough or when God appears slow to fix a difficult situation.
Since God is Immanuel, he hears our prayers. This is why Paul asks us over and over to be thankful. We give thanks because we know what God is with us, that he has heard us, even though we don’t see any evidence that he has.
This is where I have often gone wrong in my walk with God. I just didn’t think that God had heard me. I was more like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 than I was like Elijah. I would pray and pray and feel or see nothing. So, I would pray more intensely. I somehow thought that the success of prayer depended upon a heightened emotional state and an ability to keep reminding God about the need.
Now, please don’t get me wrong here. I am not against being persistent in praying for things. I think persistence is good. But, what I did not understand and what Jesus wants us to know is that God hears us each and every time when we pray. So, it is totally fine to be persistent in prayer; but, we should also be assured that God has heard us. This assurance of being heard is meant to shape how we persist in our requests. Now, it is completely fine to ask God to speed things up. Or we can pray that the next step in his plan unfolds properly. But, however we end up praying, Jesus wants us to know that he is Immanuel. He is with us, so he hears us when we pray. Therefore, we should intentionally affirm and be thankful that he has heard us.
There is one final point that I would like to make with regard to prayer and how we live out our lives here. The point is this: God is not just with us, but we are with God.
Now what do I mean by this?
We encounter a lot of suffering and a lot of injustice. And this suffering and injustice breaks our hearts. Did you ever wonder why you even notice the suffering of the people around you and care so much about it? Even though this same suffering is around so many people, they either don’t see the suffering or they just don’t care. But you do! Did you ever wonder why?
You don’t have to accept this, but this is what I think. I think that God has worked in our hearts to the extent that he is beginning to show us what he sees, and he is beginning to give us a taste of what he feels. You know, we don’t often think of God suffering. It isn’t a topic that sells a lot of books. But, the suffering of God is real. Read the Book of Hosea. Hosea was asked to love a harlot. Why? So, he could begin to feel the pain her infidelity caused him. This pain was to help him understand the pain that God felt over Israel’s infidelity. Turn to Hosea 11:1-4 and let’s read how Hosea describes God’s suffering love:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them up by their arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of kindness,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them.
We read a longing in these verses- a desperation in God. In response to his love Israel rejected God, and God suffered. Even though God had to discipline Israel and hand them over to Assyria (this is the point of 11:5-7), what does the Lord go on to say in verse 8?
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
These verses express God’s passionate and enduring love for His people. In spite of Israel’s rejection, God could not stop from loving his people. And as we all know, the love that God demonstrated to Israel God has for all people everywhere.
As God called Hosea to share in his sufferings, so God has called each one of us. Think about this. God has given us the incredible opportunity to get an inside look into how he feels. As we grow in grace, God wants us to not only share his joys, but also his sufferings. God is with us, but we are also with God.
And since we are with God we share in his suffering. One of the fruits of this sharing in his suffering is that it leads us to cry out to the Lord to establish his Kingdom. We pray as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy kingdom come! And we not only cry out in prayer, we respond in obedience to his call and get involved in advancing his kingdom. In response to what God has done within us, God has allowed us to become his hands, his feet, and his mouthpiece. As we individually and collectively live and work in the presence of God and in the fullness of the Spirit, the works that we do help people to humble themselves and open their hearts to the King.
In conclusion, God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit is with us. God is Immanuel. In response to his constant presence let us walk with him and live lives of prayer. And as we walk with him, let us also wait in joyful anticipation for the return of our King. And as we wait for his return, let us not lose heart in doing good. All that we do has impact. We may not know the impact that we are having; but, believe me, the impact is real.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).