Monday, May 18, 2009

Prayer and Things

A friend asked me to write a few paragraphs for a book he's self-publishing. The book is about the transforming power of prayer. I have to admit that I wondered why he wanted me to do this. Maybe because I'm the only aspiring writer he knows, and have the best grammar...because I'm surely no expert on prayer.

Of course, why would I let that stop me?

But prayer...the transforming power of prayer? "Prayer changes things." That was the first thing I wrote, in quotes, as something I'd heard again and again. It's something all Christians believe, officially. In practice, though, maybe we don't. In practice, it might be more like "things change prayer."

I started to write about this and to point out that the New Testament believers knew better--that prayer really does change circumstances, that God really works miracles when people pray. But I began to think about what underlies prayer that transforms. Not faith, or at least not only faith. As important as faith is, faith alone doesn't make our prayers "work." There has to be something else that accompanies faith.

"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you will and it shall be given you."

Jesus said that the night before his death. It was in a long discourse in which he opened his heart to his disciples, preparing them for his death and preparing them to wait for the Holy Spirit. It's intriguing that, as he is getting ready to leave, he tells them, and us, to "abide" in him. That means, in part, keeping his words in us. It means keeping his commands. It means loving Jesus.

It's the Father himself who has put us into this union. We didn't go up to heaven and work out a deal; the Godhead has come in the person of the Son and enacted a covenant with us, a covenant that God made and maintains. In fact, the New Covenant gives another piece to the puzzle of "abiding." Specifically, this is the New Covenant:
I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:10b-12, quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34)

In this covenant, it's God who starts all the action. He dictates the terms and he puts and he writes; he forgives; and he remembers no more. We receive his actions--his laws in our minds and on our hearts. He puts something into us and we are changed because of that. All Jesus commands is that we remain with God's laws in our minds and our hearts, knowing God and sure of his forgiveness. That's "abiding."

And then we will pray prayers that change things.

The key to prayer that transforms is knowing that we ourselves have been transformed. I know this for a fact. See, I fail a lot. I don't really have a high opinion of myself most days. I snap at the kids. I growl at my wife. I grumble at work. I do these things over and over again, and then wonder: Have I really been changed? And my prayers are weak and pathetic.

But then there are the times (I wish they were more frequent!) when I think: All of this, my God, you have forgiven. You have taken this away and put something new into me. You have changed me by putting your words and your laws into me. Then I pray differently: humbly, joyfully, expectantly.

When prayer is the fruit, or the proof, of performance, then things (my performance) change prayer. When prayer is the fruit of God's transformation, then prayer changes things.