The True Treasure of Prayer
Someone observed, “The disciples, upon whose shoulders rested the initial responsibility of Christianizing the world, came to Jesus with one supreme request. They did not say, ‘Lord, teach us to preach,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to do miracles,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to be wise.’ They said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’”
The disciples—probably because they beheld Jesus’ devotion to prayer—valued the importance of prayer. In the busyness of our hectic lives, though, we have forgotten the value of prayer. In an article entitled “Fatal Omission,” Ben Patterson points out, “Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage. Many of us feel we just have too much to do to have time to pray. That is the problem. At bottom, we don’t believe we are really doing anything when we pray—other than pray, that is.”
A significant portion of the problem comes when we fail to grasp that the more important aspect of prayer is not what we get but what we become. We easily get obsessed with the issue of receiving “answers” to our prayer requests, but God is more focused on what kind of people we are becoming.
Through the practice of prayer, we get the opportunity to become people of greater patience, and to become people of deeper compassion, and to become people of higher integrity. And as we pray for others, we get the privilege of standing beside them and of being part of the team that supports them in becoming more and more of what God would have them to be.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he takes this privilege seriously. He comes alongside them and becomes part of their team of supporters as he prays to God over what they can become in Christ. He prays for their lives to be pleasing to God as they bear fruit in every good work (verse 10), for them to be strong (verse 11), and for them to be able to endure life’s challenges with patience and joy (verses 11-12). The first thing he prays for, though, is that they will “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will” (verse 9).
The way Paul expresses it here suggests that being “filled with the knowledge of God’s will” leads to the other matters Paul prays about on their behalf. For the will of God has less to do with taking a predetermined turn in the road as with becoming the kind of people God would have us to be.
The prophet Micah addresses this when he states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) What God wants for us (what He wills for us) is to become people of integrity, justice, compassion, mercy, kindness, and humility. “In the end,” Mark Labberton argues, God’s will for us—His call upon our lives—“is about continuous formation into the likeness of Jesus Christ far more than it is about finding direction or getting a job.” (Called, p. 135).
Prayer has to do with trusting God, and it has to do with us becoming more and more of what God would have us to be. Brennan Manning pulls these two matters together well in a story he shares: “When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at ‘the house of the dying’ in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked, ‘And what can I do for you?’ Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. ‘What do you want me to pray for?’ she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: ‘Pray that I have clarity.’
“She said firmly, ‘No, I will not do that.’ When he asked her why, she said, ‘Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.’ When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, ‘I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.’”