What Do We Want in Prayer?
What Do We Want in Prayer?
In the event of a fire in your home, the last thing you want to do is run around in the burning house (as is often seen on TV). The temperature at head level may well reach 600 degrees, and one blast of that heat could destroy your lungs. The only way to survive is on your hands and knees. At floor level, the temperature may be only 150 degrees, and crawling to an exit is the one way to withstand such conditions.
For us as Christians, such conditions are not the extreme, but the norm. We need to stay on our knees to survive!
The reason we don't pray more is that we have misunderstood the primary purpose of prayer. Prayer is more about getting to know God than getting answers, and Jesus shows us that prayer is all about recognizing our absolute dependence on God. That's why we should pray. But in our own hearts, what do we really want when we pray? What is the desired result of our praying? God wants our praying to be the kind of experience we are drawn to, not one we are dragged into. When it comes to what we really want in prayer, we can narrow it down to a couple of basic things—both of which are found in Jesus' model prayer.
We want our prayers to be meaningful
I can't imagine anyone who takes prayer seriously not wanting their prayers to be meaningful. If you have ever been a part of a time of prayer when you sensed, powerfully, the presence of the Holy Spirit—and you genuinely believed you connected with God in your praying—you are forever ruined from participating in routine, lifeless praying. What is it that makes prayer meaningful? What makes the difference between a time of prayer that no one wants to end—when the presence of God is felt by all—and prayer that just seems stale, routine, and forced?
Meaningful praying is when we move from need to want. If our only motivation in praying is because we need God, it will be genuine and biblically true. But the kind of praying that draws you back again and again is when you develop a desire to be with God, not just an awareness of your dependence on him. If we only feel that we must come to God out of need, then our praying will suffer. We will begin to feel as though we are "bothering" God: as though we are coming to him too much. It is when we long to be with God, whether we ask for anything or not, that praying becomes a deep desire of our hearts and not just something we know we should do.
Meaningful praying is when we want what God wants. Whenever we think about prayer, it is hard to escape the question: "How does prayer work?" Even when we recognize that prayer is about deepening our relationship with God, we still have all of the biblical material—even from the mouth of Jesus—saying things like, "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matt. 21:22). Surely it is not just me who wonders: How does that really happen? How much faith is enough faith? How do you have the kind of success in prayer that we see all over the New Testament, but that for some reason—if we're really honest with each other—is completely foreign to our lives?
In seeking to answer those questions, I want to give a very simple response and then spend some time unpacking exactly what it means. The simple answer to meaningful praying involves two basic steps.
Align your wants with God's wants. Isn't this how closeness and intimacy are developed? When you share a deep desire with someone else, when you and someone else want the very same things—not in competition, but in shared longings—that brings you close together with that person, right? When a husband and wife share a common dream, it draws them close together. When two best friends share a dream or desire, it brings them closer together. This is true about your relationship with God. When we want what he wants, when we desire what he desires, that closeness with God becomes a reality, and the things that are closest to God's heart become the things that are closest to our hearts.
When your heart beats with the same desires of God's heart, then the second step is to ask for what you want in prayer. When your wants are God's wants, you ask for whatever you want in prayer and you are guaranteed to get it. You already have it, as Jesus says. When your wants are God's wants, then you know you have it as soon as you ask for it. I realize that may be an oversimplification, but I think it's biblical.
The essence of successful, meaningful praying is that our wants, our desires, and our requests align with God's desires. How that happens is, of course, the challenge. But Jesus absolutely seeks to help us in that when he gives us the model prayer in Luke 11:1-4.
The point of Jesus giving this model prayer is that it serves as a framework for our praying. It was never intended just to be repeated word-for-word as the only prayer you pray. It is a framework, a skeleton, an outline, and we are to fill it out as we pray. That leads to the second thing I believe we all want when we pray.
We want our prayers to be heard
When we come to the Lord's Prayer, we don't see Jesus saying, "These are the exact words you say." Instead, he is showing us what we're supposed to desire in prayer. When he says, "When you pray, say … ," the word "pray" in the original language of the New Testament is two words that are put together that basically mean "to request something in the context of a close relationship." If we want our prayers to be heard, we must align our wants, desires, and requests with God's. Jesus shows us what that looks like.
We are heard when we honor God's name: "Father, / hallowed be your name" (Luke 11:2). For a long time, when I read this prayer, I thought that this was declaring the fact that God's name is holy. I saw it as the proper beginning of praying—you affirm the holiness of God and his name, and then go on from there. But that is not what Jesus is saying here. The language that is used here is not a declaration of the holiness of God's name, but rather, it is a request for God to "hallow" his name. That leads to the obvious question: What does that look like? What does it mean for God to "hallow his name"?
The word that is translated "hallowed" is a word used in the New Testament in a couple of different ways, depending on the context. One way it is used is to describe how you make something holy: the process of sanctification. This is what God is doing in the lives of believers—making us holy, which means making us to be more like Jesus. But we cannot make God's name or God himself holy. He is already holy. Clearly that is not the way the word is used here.
The other use is to describe how you treat something as holy. What we are doing in this prayer is asking God to cause his name to be treated as holy, to be regarded as holy.
Holiness is the predominant characteristic of God throughout the Old Testament. In Isaiah 6, the angels sing "holy, holy, holy" night and day (v. 3). God's holiness means he is completely unique; there is no one like him (Ezek. 36:23). When God reveals himself to us, he reveals himself as absolutely unique and holy (2 Sam. 7:22). When we pray "hallowed be your name," we pray, "God, make yourself known as the one whom nobody else is like. Show to the world that there is no God but you, that you are great. You are holy."
Closely related to this desire is the next phrase. We are heard when we recognize God's rule: "your kingdom come" (Luke 11:2). Throughout the New Testament, we see a picture of the kingdom of God beginning with Christ's coming to Earth and showing what the reign of God looks like with his life. But the New Testament also looks forward to the consummation of that kingdom, when God will come and reign and eradicate all evil and all opposition to his rule. When we pray "hallowed be your name, / your kingdom come," we are praying, "God, come and make your name known. God, come and make your reign known." That's what we're asking God to do.
The prayer for God's name to be treated as holy and for God's kingdom to come has both a personal aspect and a corporate aspect. What that means is: when I pray that prayer, I am asking God to make his name holy in my life. "Lord, cause me to treat your name as holy. I want to live in such a way that shows that I treat your name and your character as holy." That may translate into greater obedience to God. That may be revealed as having greater purity in your life. But the prayer is: "God, make your name holy in my life." The same is true for praying for God's kingdom to come. It is, first of all, a prayer that God would be the king of your life, not just generically the king of the world.
Now we do desire that—that God would be worshipped as holy, and that God's kingdom would be present in every tribe, every nation, every language, and every people group. But that's always easier to pray, right? That God would overcome all of the evil and opposition to his kingdom in the world. Yet the way that will happen is when he rules first without opposition in our hearts and in our lives. God's kingdom comes each time a person is saved—that expands the kingdom. When you relinquish your claim to be the king of your life and surrender to God as king, his kingdom comes. When we pray "your kingdom come," we are praying for people to be saved.
His kingdom also comes in our sanctification. The kingdom of God advances by our own continual and increasing submission to him as king. Have you noticed how easy it is to rise up and take the authority in your life? When we are filled with the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit is being produced in our lives, then God's kingdom is advanced.
Here's what's great about this: When we pray for God's name to be hallowed and his kingdom to come, God wants this to happen. He wants his name to be hallowed. We have to remember that when we pray, we're not asking God to do things he doesn't want to do. We're asking God to do that which is most passionate in his heart. His whole person is inclined to make his glory known. There is nothing that is higher on God's priority list than making his greatness and his grace and his mercy and his majesty and his love known. When we pray for that, we're coming in line with the desires of God. This is why we can say, "Align your desires with God's desires, then ask for whatever you desire."
We are heard when we submit to God's will (Matt. 6:10). To put it simply, we want the will of God—which is always done in heaven—to be done on Earth in the same way, to the same degree. That is what this prayer is about. God's will is always done in heaven: perfectly, fully, immediately, completely. We pray, desiring that that would happen here on Earth. Praying to submit to God's will is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).
In praying "your will be done," we're not just talking about the grand, overarching, eternal purpose of God. Everything ultimately that God desires will be achieved, but along the way, in all the specifics and the circumstances in this world, not everything is God's will. In fact, most of what happens in this fallen world is contrary to his will.
Then what are we asking in this request? We are expressing an attitude that can be described in a couple of ways.
One: This is praying with an attitude of rebellion. Yes, rebellion! Submitting to God's will is simultaneously rebelling against everything that is happening in this world that is not consistent with his will. In other words, we are saying, "God, we know that everything in heaven is done according to your will. Everything here is not, and we pray that it would be." To pray that sincerely, we have to, in essence, rebel against everything within us and in this world that goes against God's will. Our hearts cannot be divided as we pray.
There is another attitude that is present in this request. To pray "your will be done, / on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10) is to wake up and act as if there is a war, because there is one. It's not about fixing our little worlds and giving us what we want; it's about, "God, bring your glory to Earth, bring your kingdom to Earth, do your will here." We pray that, believing it will make a difference because God says it will. Praying "your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" is choosing sides in the spiritual battle that is raging in our world—choosing the winning side, I might add!
We are heard when we trust God completely: "Give us each day our daily bread" (Luke 11:3). The request for daily bread has its roots in God's work with the people of Israel in the Exodus. When they were wandering in the wilderness, they were hungry. They didn't have any food, so God provided food for them: literally bread from heaven, "manna." They would wake up, walk outside their tents, and there would be enough food for that day. They would be able to eat for that day, but if they tried to save any until the next day, what happened? The bread wasn't good anymore, and so they wouldn't want to eat that bread the next day. They learned to trust God day by day.
Why did God do that? Why did he lead them like that, and why would that be so important for how we pray? This request reveals two important aspects about how we trust God completely.
We trust his plan. I want to ask you what might seem an obvious question: Why were the Israelites hungry? Of course it was because they didn't have any food, but why does a lack of food create hunger in our bodies? Answer: because God created us that way. The only reason we are hungry for food, the only reason we have any cravings, is because God has created us that way. Now sin can pervert and distort those, but that is a whole other sermon. The whole point of our hungers and cravings is that God created us to hunger after things that only he can provide. Have you ever thought of it that way? The fact that you hunger is because God created you that way, to seek him to fulfill that need (Deut. 8:3).
In the same way, when Jesus tells us to pray "give us each day our daily bread," it is a way of reminding us on a daily basis to realize, "God, we have a hunger for food—a physical hunger for food. And only you can provide for that hunger. We have a thirst for water. Only you can provide for that. We have a longing for air on a moment-by-moment basis. Only you can provide for that." We don't even think about it, but as soon as it's taken away from us, we begin immediately to long for it. We have all kinds of hungers, desires, thirsts, and longings in our lives: for peace, for love, for intimacy, for meaning, for purpose. Jesus is saying, in this prayer, that you go to God and you say, "Only you can provide these things for me." Trusting God's plan means we believe he created us to find fulfillment in him so we stop trying to find it anywhere else.
This leads to the second important aspect of trusting God completely: We trust his person. This whole request seems strange in our culture today. Let's be honest: We don't very often ask God to give us bread, to give us food today. I doubt any of us in this room were worried about the fact that we may not have anything to eat today. Why would our main request for God to give us something be "bread"—when, in our culture, most (if not all) of us need less food, not more? Why do we ask for daily bread? Jesus is saying, "You need to pray, and prayer will be the guard in your life against thinking that you can provide bread for yourself on your own, apart from God." Prayer is a protection. It brings us back to reality.
I'm convinced, when I look at my own life and when I look at Christianity in our culture, that one of the reasons we are so casual with prayer is because we actually believe we can do this thing on our own, and we can sustain our lives on our own. We believe that because we have the "things" to prove it. We have bought into the lie, the materialism, that has told us we don't really need God—we just need our stuff. We can make it without God because we have got all our things.
Jesus says the core of prayer is you realizing you have a Father in heaven who desires to give every good and perfect gift to you—and you need him, not bread. You need him—not water, not air, not all of these things you hunger and long for. You need him, and he will provide those things for you (Ps. 16:2).
Prayer brings us back to that realization. We have to ask God, in this culture that we live in, to deliver us from self-sustaining Christian lives. That goes against the whole point of Christianity, because God alone sustains us. We're only satisfied by God, and he gives us that which nothing else in this world can: no matter how big our house is, no matter how nice our car is, no matter how great our 401(k) is, no matter how wonderful our job or our salary is. We don't need things. We need God. Prayer is God's gift to us to help us remember this truth every day.
Our praying will be revolutionized when we honestly tell God, "I don't have this." Here is what will bring us back to God in prayer, over and over: Instead of demeaning us or belittling us for our need, God is actually glorified as we come to him, and he embraces us in a deeper closeness because we recognize our need.
Richard Foster wrote this about prayer: "Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love." Let's pursue that!
Steve Abbott is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Siloam Springs, Arkansas.