Help in Prayer
By David Feddes
If you’re like most people, you pray. According to surveys, almost everybody prays at some time or another, and most people pray fairly often. You might not go to church often, you might not consider yourself part of any religion, but chances are you still pray. Even among atheists and agnostics, a great number still pray from time to time. It may seem strange talking to God without believing he’s there. But every day people do it.
Why is that? What moves almost everybody, even those who aren’t religious, to pray? I guess one reason is that most of us figure we’ve got nothing to lose by praying. God may not be listening, he may not even be real, but what if he is? It can’t hurt to ask, and it might help. So if you need financial help, or face health problems, or want something badly, you breathe a prayer and hope for the best. Who knows? Maybe God will come through. Prayer can be like radioing for help when you’re in a boat far from shore. You don’t know if anybody will hear you, but it’s worth a try, just in case.
There may also be another reason many of us feel the urge to pray. We don’t just want God to help us out or give us something we’re after; we want to make contact with God. We long to be in touch with Someone great and mysterious who can fill our lives with a sense of wonder and delight. Wouldn’t you like to think that the most important person in the universe cares about you and listens when you talk to him? Wouldn’t you like to connect with Someone who can touch your humdrum life with a glow of glory? Inside each of us there’s a deep longing for the Eternal, and prayer expresses that longing.
We do indeed have strong motivations to pray–so strong that many of us can’t keep from praying. But at the same time we can’t help feeling confused and frustrated about our prayers. We want to pray, but we don’t know how. We want to ask God for certain things, but we don’t know what to ask for or what to expect. And after we finish saying our prayers, we’re not always sure what impact our prayers have had, if any. How do we know we’re getting through? We want to get in touch with God, but we’re not quite sure who God is. We may not even be sure who we are. Are we God’s friends or his enemies? Are we people who really seek God, or do we just want to use God as a way of getting the stuff we want? It’s hard to know our own hearts and our hidden motives.
These are just a few of the problems that spring up when we start praying. So yes, most of us do pray, but most of us suspect we’re not doing it very well. We need help.
The good news is that help is available. We don’t have to figure God out on our own. God introduces himself and invites us to be his friends. And we don’t have to figure prayer out all on our own. We don’t have to feel all the right emotions or say all the right words. God guides us in how to pray. If we’re still unsure how to pray or what to ask for, God can take our prayer and make it mean what it ought to mean. Isn’t that encouraging?
A Conversation of Love
To see what prayer is about, and to see how God helps us pray, we first need to focus on the nature of God. The Bible says, “God is love.” This doesn’t just mean that God is loving toward other beings, though that is true. But there’s also a deeper truth in the statement “God is love.” Love isn’t just what God does; love is who God is, by his very nature.
In the Bible God reveals himself as one Being in which three distinct, divine Persons are united in an eternal bond of love. This Holy Trinity, this union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one in power, one in perfection, one in purpose, one in glory, one in essence, one in love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is united to both Father and Son in an infinite, eternal outpouring of love. God is love because God is Trinity.
This great Trinity has chosen to create other beings. Why does God create? To expand the circle of love, to bring into existence creatures who know God’s love and love him in return.
When God’s creatures get tangled in sin and death, what does God do? He pours out an even greater measure of love. In love God the Father devises a great plan to save his fallen creation. In love God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, becomes one of us and dies for us and rises again to lift us out of our misery. In love God the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and touches us with new life and fills our hearts with his love.
God pours out his heart of love, and in doing so, he calls for the love of our hearts. God calls us to receive his love and to love him in return.
What does this have to do with prayer? True prayer is first of all a heart-to-heart conversation of love, a deep dialogue and communion. In prayer we sense God’s love for us, and we express our love for him. Love is the heart of true prayer.
Here’s the prayer of one great Christian: “I love you, O my God, and my only desire is to love you until the last breath of my life. I love you, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving you, than live without loving you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally…. My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love you, I want my heart to repeat it to you as often as I draw breath” (St. John Vianney).
That prayer expresses a deep desire to love God the way God deserves to be loved. But we let’s face it: we can’t love God this way, or pray this way, on our own. We need help. We need Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to draw us into the Holy Trinity’s fellowship of love. And when we’re mixed up in the confusion and difficulties of our day-to-day lives, we need Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to take our mixed up prayers and make them into prayers that resonate in the very heart of God.
Prayer is the privilege of conversation with the Holy Trinity, with the constant help of the Holy Trinity. God likes to hear his people pray. In fact, he is so eager to hear from us that he actually helps us with our prayers.
Invitation and Introduction
One great help is that God initiates the conversation by inviting us to talk with him and introducing himself.
Have you ever tried to talk to someone you don’t know or whom you suspect would rather not hear from you? That’s awkward, isn’t it? It’s hard to break the ice when you want to speak with a stranger. It’s even harder if you want to ask for something but you’re not sure the other person wants to know you or help you. That can be a problem in starting an ordinary conversation. But when it comes to prayer, we don’t have to make the first move. God offers an invitation and an introduction.
Before we even think about praying, the Lord invites us to talk with him. When we have a need, we don’t have to worry that it’s a bother for God, or that the Lord is too stingy or unkind to give us what we need. The Bible says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). We don’t have take the initiative in prayer. God has already invited us to talk with him.
And as he invites us, the Lord introduces himself and lets us know who it is that we’re talking to. If God didn’t do that, there wouldn’t be much point in praying at all. If you pray to some great unknown beyond the clouds, or to a god or goddess of your own imagination, those prayers won’t do much. They’re not directed to anyone definite or real.
The Bible tells how God’s prophet Elijah challenged 450 prophets of a phony god called Baal. They were to pray to Baal to send fire from the sky down to the altar of Baal, and then Elijah would ask the Lord God to send fire from heaven to his altar. The God that answered with fire would be the true God.
So the 450 prophets of Baal prayed and danced and yelled and went through all sorts of wild rituals. But their altar just sat there. Nothing happened. Nobody answered. They were sending all their prayers to the wrong address. There was no divine being named Baal to hear and answer their prayers.
When the prophets of Baal finally gave up, it was Elijah’s turn. First he poured buckets and buckets of water all over his offering and altar just to make it harder to catch fire. Then Elijah prayed one short, earnest prayer. The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the offering, the wood, the water, the stones of the altar, and even the soil around the altar (1 Kings 18). You see, Elijah prayed to the real God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Bible.
Prayer isn’t much good if it’s addressed to a phony idol or a vague unknown. True prayer is directed to the one true God, the God revealed in the Bible, in faith that this God is real and that he responds to prayer. The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). So the most basic help God gives us in prayer is that he reveals himself to us. He helps us understand who he is, and he gives us faith in his love.
God began revealing himself to the Old Testament people of Israel, and this led up to his fullest revelation in our Lord Jesus Christ. God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, came into the world as a man. Jesus’ life and miracles and teaching and personality revealed perfectly what God is like, and his death and resurrection removed the barrier of sin between us and God. After doing all that, Jesus ascended to heaven. There he intercedes on behalf of everyone who prays in his name, and he makes their prayers effective.
Ten days after Jesus’ ascension, on the day of Pentecost, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, came with special power on Jesus’ disciples. The Holy Spirit opened their minds to all the truth of Jesus and gave them power to spread that truth to others. The Holy Spirit’s work was and is to draw people into fellowship with Jesus Christ and with God the Father, and this fellowship is the substance of all true prayer.
If God hadn’t revealed himself and removed the barriers between us and him, our prayers would be useless. All we could do would be to address our prayers “To whom it may concern.” But now we can speak to our loving Father in heaven in the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. God has shown us who he is in his Triune being, and so we can come to him in faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus, to our Father in heaven.
In true prayer, we can’t address a phony God, and we can’t be phony ourselves. God helps our prayers by showing us who it is we ought to be praying to, and also by showing us who we are as we do our praying. The Holy Spirit knows us inside out, our hearts are an open book to God, and once we know that, we can come to God honestly and pour out everything in our heart, even the things we’re ashamed of. We can admit our sins. We can be honest about our problems and our needs and our fears. There’s no use pretending; we can’t fool God anyway. And there’s no need to pretend; God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s merit, not because we’ve got it all together.
Honesty is the best policy in any conversation, and so it is when we pray to God. We speak to God as he is and reveals himself to be, not just as we’d like him to be or imagine him to be; and we speak as who we are, not who we wish we were. C. S. Lewis said, “The prayer preceding all prayer is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’”
Perfecting Our Prayers
But then what? Once we reach that point, once we hear God’s invitation to pray; once we put our faith in Father, Son, and Spirit, and in what God has done to save us; and once we have some degree of honesty and awareness of who we are–how do we know what to say? How do we know we’re getting through? How do we know what to expect? What if we don’t know what words to use? Again the Bible gives encouraging news. The Holy Trinity takes our imperfect prayers and makes them into something much more profound and powerful. In fact, by the time Father, Son, and Spirit have processed our prayers, those prayers are perfect.
Do you ever feel so sad and heartbroken you can’t put it into words, so baffled and confused about God’s will that you don’t know what you ought to be praying for, so tired and discouraged that you don’t feel like saying much of anything? How can you come up with the right words at a time like that?
You don’t have to. God does it for you.
The Bible says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts know the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27). You know what that means? It means that even if you don’t know what to say, even if all you can do is groan, God’s Holy Spirit living inside you makes your groaning his own and translates it into a perfect prayer that God understands completely and that fits perfectly with his will.
The Spirit isn’t the only one who helps our prayers. Jesus, the Son, also helps. After showing how the Spirit intercedes, the Bible goes on to say, “Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). The word interceding means speaking on someone’s behalf. The Spirit speaks on our behalf from inside us, and Jesus speaks on our behalf in heaven. With that kind of help in our prayers, how can we be anything but confident when we pray?
The Bible encourages us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). It says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19,22). The Spirit and the Son perfect our prayers and bring them to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity.
And it’s not as if the Father needs to be convinced or cajoled to hear our prayers. If the Father didn’t love us, if he weren’t for us, would he ever have sent his Son and Spirit? When we pray, all we have to do is mention Jesus’ name in faith, and we have the Father’s instant attention. Jesus intercedes on our behalf, says the Bible, but that doesn’t mean he’s trying to convince the Father to do something He doesn’t want to do. The fact that Jesus came and is now back at the Father’s side is itself a guarantee that the Father is already for us. “In that day,” says Jesus, “you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:26-27).
Jesus earned us the right to come to the Father and call him “Our Father,” and the Spirit brings us into the experience of being children of the Father. The Bible says, “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:14-16). When the Spirit lives in us, and we trust in Jesus, we can be sure that we are children of a heavenly Father who is eager to hear us and help us.
Jesus teaches us to start our prayers by saying, “Our Father.” We are God’s children, talking to a Father who wants to hear from us. He loves us so much that we don’t need big speeches to convince him to care. He knows us so well that we don’t need lengthy lectures to tell him things he doesn’t know. Jesus tells us, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). The Father helps us in prayer by knowing in advance what we need most.
Now do you see how marvelously God helps us? He draws us into the great circle of communication within the Holy Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit, united in love, help us and make our prayers what they ought to be.
More Than We Asked For
When you saw that this article was about help in prayer, maybe you were hoping for practical pointers on how to get through to God and make sure he gives you what you want. I haven’t said much about that, and you might feel disappointed. That’s understandable. We all have times when we’d like to know what button to push and what string to pull in order to get our way. We’d like to bring God in tune with our will. But when God helps us in our prayers, he does something even better. He brings us in tune with his will. He doesn’t just give us what we ask for. He gives us what we need. Someone has written,
I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but everything that I had hoped for. Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered; I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
In prayer we seek God’s gifts, but even more, we seek the Giver himself, because in him, we have everything else. We seek the God whose love is better than life itself, and we express our love and our longing for him. The Bible records this beautiful prayer: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you… Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you” (Psalm 63:1,3). This longing for God, this delight in the Father’s love, this desire for the glory of his name and for the coming of his kingdom, inspires us to pray in the words that Jesus himself taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.