The prayer of the upright is his delight. Proverbs 15:8
Would you walk up to someone you don’t know, somebody you have no relationship with, and ask for lots of special favors? Imagine starting a conversation with a total stranger by telling him all the things you want him to do for you: “Hey, you, I don’t know you, but I’m told you’re good at making things happen. I’m in a hurry, so I’ll just list some things I want you to do for me and some items I want you to give me. I only have a minute to talk—no time for more conversation. So hurry up and make something good happen for me, okay? Maybe some other time we can get to know each other.”
It would be shameful to approach someone that way. How dare we ask for things from someone we’re not interested in knowing? If someone is a close friend or family member, we might feel more confident asking for something, because there’s a connection, a relationship. But going to a stranger with all sorts of requests won’t accomplish much. Requests without relationship won’t get far.
That’s true when we speak with other people, but what about when we speak with God? How many of us talk to God only when we want something? How often do we give God a wish list without seeking a relationship? Prayer must be more than a wish list. Prayer is relationship, not just requests. If God is a complete stranger to us and the only time we talk to him is when we want something from him, then we need to discover relational prayer.
Relational prayer is having a conversation with God—not just telling him what we want, but having a real conversation in which we not only talk to him but also listen to him and get to know him and become closer and closer to him. Relational prayer respects the personal nature of God. Relational prayer doesn’t just see God as a supplier of whatever we want but seeks a living, loving relationship with him. God is the most powerful, most beautiful, most personal being that exists, so a relationship with God is the most powerful, most beautiful, most personal relationship your or I can possibly have. That means nothing in the world is more important than relational prayer.
“Prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul,” said the late British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones. “Man is at his greatest and highest when, on his knees, he comes face to face with God.” Prayer brings you into God’s throne room and puts you in touch with the King of the universe. If it’s a great thing to talk with a president or prime minister or king, if it’s a great thing to be a personal friend of a great ruler, then surely the greatest thing of all is to talk with the Ruler of the entire universe and to have a personal relationship with him. Relational prayer is hanging around with Almighty God: that’s the highest possible company, and it lifts us higher than anything else we do. That’s one reason relational prayer is the highest activity of the human soul.
God’s Favorite Food
Another reason relational prayer is the highest thing we do is that it brings God more pleasure than anything else we do. As prayer lift our hearts to God, it also fills God’s heart with pleasure. The Bible says, “The prayer of the upright is his delight” (Proverbs 15:8). God loves us to come to him in prayer. God enjoys conversations with his children. God likes it when we talk to him and listen for his voice. God savors the praises of his people and is happy to pour out his blessings.
Relational prayer is much more than bringing God a wish list, but that doesn’t mean relational prayer involves no requests. Far from it! God wants us to ask him for all sorts of things. But he wants us to ask within the context of a desire for him and a relationship with him. When our requests are part of a loving relationship, then God delights in hearing our requests and answering in a way that’s best for us.
The Bible sometimes pictures prayer as a sweet smell or a delicious meal that God enjoys. As Pastor John Piper puts it,
It is as though God has a favorite food. When we pray, he smells the aroma from the kitchen as you prepare his special dish. When God hungers for some special satisfaction, he seeks out a prayer to answer. Our prayer is the sweet aroma from the kitchen ascending into the King’s chambers making him hungry for the meal. But the actual enjoyment of the meal is his own glorious work in answering our prayer. The food of God is to answer our prayers. The most wonderful thing about the Bible is that it reveals a God who satisfies his appetite for joy by answering prayers. (The Pleasures of God, p. 223).
Prayer is God’s favorite food. It’s also our best nourishment. In the Bible God says, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). Relational prayer is a feast for God and a feast for us. God feasts on the glory and pleasure of giving us his joy, and we feast on God.
Belonging to Jesus Christ isn’t just a set of beliefs or behaviors; it’s a relationship. That relationship certainly involves believing certain truths and behaving in certain ways, but at the heart of the relationship is a personal connection with the Lord. In the words of A. W. Tozer, “The continuous and unembarrassed interchange of love and thought between God and the soul of the redeemed man is the throbbing heart of New Testament religion.” The free interchange of love and thought—that’s what relational prayer is. It’s pouring out our thoughts to God and paying attention to what God is thinking. It’s experiencing God’s love and expressing our love for him.
How does such a relationship get started? How do we get to know God and get connected in the first place? And once the relationship is started, how can it flourish and keep getting closer and better? How do we deal with things that get in the way of relational prayer? How do we overcome hindrances and distractions so that relational prayer can be the heartbeat of our day-to-day life? Let’s think about those questions and find some answers.
Starting a Relationship
A relationship with God is impossible without prayer. That’s because prayer is communication, and where there’s no communication, there’s no relationship. To have a relationship with God, you must listen to him and talk to him.
If you don’t know God at all and aren’t even sure he exists, you might want evidence that God is real before you consider having a relationship with him. It can be helpful to examine evidence, to look for clues, to study archeology and philosophy, to consider various lines of reasoning for the existence of God. There’s no lack of evidence—philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli list twenty arguments for the existence of God, and others could be added. Such evidence can help to clear away objections and open your mind to the likelihood that God is real, but there’s more to looking for God than sorting through evidence. If you’re busy looking at clues, that’s okay, but keep in mind that God is not just a thing to investigate or an idea to think about but a person to relate to. Sometimes the best way to find a person is not just to follow clues but to seek the person himself.
Suppose you’re looking for someone in a forest. One way to search would be to look for tracks on the ground and for other clues the person left behind. That could be helpful, but what if you were so busy looking at the ground for clues that you never looked up and never noticed that the person you were looking for was already walking right beside you? If you’re looking for God, you can look down at the various clues God leaves behind, but why not try looking up in prayer? You might find that God is right beside you, eager to hear you and communicate with you.
If you don’t sense God nearby, try calling his name. If you were looking for a person in a forest, you wouldn’t just look on the ground for clues or look around for the person; you would also keep calling his name in hopes that he would answer back. Likewise, when you’re looking for God, keep calling for him. Even if you’re not sure he’s there to hear you, pray to him anyway. It may not be much of a prayer. It may be nothing better than, “God, I’m not sure if you’re there, but if you are, I want to meet you and know you. Please listen to me and help me to find you.” A prayer like that might do more to help you find God than all the evidence in the world.
The Bible says that God wants us to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). The first step in relational prayer is simply to pray that God will make the relationship get started in the first place by letting you get in touch with him.
As you pray for God to make himself known to you, don’t give up if something doesn’t happen right away. Sometimes God wants you to seek him for a while and develop a stronger desire for the relationship before he lets you find him. Think again of what you would do if you were looking for someone in a forest. Would you stop calling his name if he didn’t answer the first time you called? No, you’d keep searching and keep calling and keep listening for a voice calling back to you. Likewise, pray without ceasing until God hears you and answers you. God promises in the Bible, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
It’s fine to be interested in logical proofs and in archeological discoveries, such as the recently discovered burial box labeled “James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus.” Did this box really did contain the bones of the brother of Jesus Christ? That would be a big discovery in archeology, but finding the burial box of Jesus’ dead half-brother would not be nearly as important as finding the living Jesus.
Seek Jesus himself, not just clues about him. Pray for a relationship. Once you’re walking and talking with the Lord, evidence and arguments may still be interesting but not nearly as convincing or as important as your personal connection with God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Relational prayer begins with a prayer that reaches out for God. Ask God to make himself known to you. Ask him to bring you into a relationship with him. As you talk to God in prayer, be sure to read the Bible daily and listen for God’s voice speaking from his inspired Word. The Lord will impress important messages on your spirit. Early in the relationship, he will show you how much you need him and how much he loves you. He will show you that you are a sinner and that the blood of Jesus washes you clean. Believe the Lord. Trust him to forgive you and save you. Thank him for accepting you into a relationship with him, and welcome his Holy Spirit to live in you. The way to experience salvation and eternal life is simply to knowing the Lord and to be connected to him in a personal relationship. Jesus says, “This is eternal life: that they may know … the only true God and Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).
A Growing Relationship
Once there’s a real relationship and you know you’re saved, don’t stop there. Keep seeking more. The relationship must keep growing stronger and deeper. Don’t put so much emphasis on the initial moment of “getting saved” that you neglect the ongoing relationship. There’s a lot more to a friendship than the first time you meet and hit it off with someone. There’s a lot more to a marriage than love at first sight or a splendid wedding. A relationship isn’t just one magical moment; it involves regular communication and frequent expressions of love. It’s good to pray a sinner’s prayer and ask for salvation, but be sure to keep talking and listening to God after you’re saved.
Relationships are like cell phones. They need to be recharged and powered up repeatedly. If you never plug a cell phone in to recharge the battery, it eventually runs out of power and stops working. It must be recharged regularly. Likewise, marriages and friendships need to be recharged regularly through communication, kindness, and love—and the greatest relationship of all, our relationship with God, needs to be recharged repeatedly through relational prayer. As you speak to God and listen to him, you connect with him, and the power of the Holy Spirit recharges your relationship.
Relational prayer is vital to a growing, flourishing relationship with God. Relational prayer is the highest thing a human can do. Relational prayer nourishes and lifts our souls, and relational prayer delights our heavenly Father. Nothing you or I can do is more important than communicating with Almighty God through his Son Jesus in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
That’s the truth about relational prayer, but I have to admit that relational prayer doesn’t happen easily for me. Often I don’t feel much pleasure in praying. I don’t always sense that God enjoys my prayers. I know the truth of how fantastic relational prayer is, and yet for some strange reason I have a hard time doing it. When I get a good intention to pray, it seems that I suddenly think of something I have to do. If I do settle down to pray, all sorts of other thoughts tug at my mind that distract me from paying attention to God and having a conversation with him. Almost anything in the world is easier than prayer. It’s easier for me to preach about prayer to crowds of people than to actually pray to God.
I have many things competing for my time and attention, but that’s all an excuse. I somehow find time for lots of less important things—indeed, everything else is less important than prayer. Why don’t I make more time to pray? Why, when I try to pray, do I become distracted so easily? Why do I so quickly run out of things to pray about? Something inside me longs for God, but something else inside me is more comfortable keeping my distance. The something that holds me back from prayer is my own sinful nature being tugged by Satan tempting me to keep my distance from God; the Someone who keeps nudging me to pray is God’s Holy Spirit living in me.
Do you experience something similar? Do you long to know God better, yet find all sorts of things getting in the way? Do you want relational prayer to be the pattern and joy of your life, yet find that conversation with God is a struggle? Well, don’t give up. Don’t stop listening and talking to God just because it’s not always easy. Ask for the help of God’s Holy Spirit to help you pray and stay connected with Christ.
If we could communicate and connect with God better through relational prayer, it might do wonders for our other relationships. The way we relate to God rubs off on the way we relate to others. People who think they’re too busy to talk with God tend to be too busy to talk with others. Husbands and wives can be so busy coming and going that they hardly talk to each other, and then they wonder why they’re drifting apart and their love is withering. Some teens talk to their parents only long enough to ask for money or the keys to the car but don’t enjoy longer conversations, and then they wonder why their parents have no connection with their world. I suspect that a teen who gets into frequent relational prayer with God will end up having more frequent, healthy conversations with parents. I suspect that a husband or wife who makes conversation with God part of everyday life will become a better communicator with their spouse as well. Many of the bad habits that hamper our prayer life also show up in our other relationships. So as our prayers and relationship with God are transformed, many of our other conversations and relationships may be transformed as well.
One of the most important parts of relational prayer (and of communication in any relationship) is paying attention. If I pray with my mind only on what I want, my prayers aren’t worth much. If I want a conversation with God, I can’t just try to get him to pay attention to me; I must pay attention to him.
When you pray, start by letting it sink in who your partner in this conversation is. This is God! This is the Creator of the universe, the fountain of all joy, the limitless ocean of love. This is the Father of Jesus Christ, the God of compassion, the Lord of all comfort, the friend of sinners, the Savior of his people. This is your Father and your friend. He is more eager to bless you than you are to experience his blessing. So when you pray, don’t be in a hurry to talk about what you want. First marvel at how good God is, how strong God is, how loving and creative and holy God is, and what a privilege it is to know him. Before you say anything about what you want God to do for you, first tell God why you love him and what you adore about him.
Otherwise your conversations become mostly business with little personal connection. A relationship with God shouldn’t be all business, any more than a marriage should be. My wife and I are busy people. We have a large family and many things to do. Wendy and I talk about our children and their education, about household finances and chores, about neighbors and friends at church, and it’s good to talk about all that. It’s part of the life we share. But something would be wrong if all the time we spent together were nothing but business and activities, if I never simply paid attention to Wendy and enjoyed her as the wonderful person she is. In the same way, it’s good to talk with God about many activities and challenges—one of the great things about relational prayer is that we face day-to-day opportunities and activities in partnership with God—but relational prayer must be more than that. It must include paying attention to God, taking notice of how awesome he is and of what a privilege it is to have a relationship with him.
As we pay attention to who God is, let’s also listen for what he is saying to us. God speaks through the Bible, and in our times of prayer, if we spend time in silence and listen for his leading, he may impress a biblical message on us and help us to know what he is saying to guide, encourage, or correct us. At times his only message may be to say again how much he loves us. To hear what God is saying, we must be paying attention to him, not just to our own concerns.
Sometimes when I’m reading a book or wrapped up in thought, my wife or children will be talking to me, and I hardly notice. I might even nod automatically and say something without even being aware of it. They might talk for several minutes while I remain in my own little world. Suddenly I’ll snap out of it and say, “Oh, were you talking to me? What did you say?” My family members are usually kind enough to laugh about my absent-mindedness instead of getting angry at me, but it’s still fair to say that not much communication happens when I’m in my absent-minded zone. My mind has to be present, not absent.
When praying to God, our minds need to be present, not absent. We need to pay attention, not let our minds wander. Don’t get a guilt complex if you get distracted in the middle of prayer, but use even the distractions as an occasion for prayer, asking God to help you focus on him and pay attention to who he is and what he is saying to us. Jesus says that when we pray, we should go to a closet, a private place where we’re not trying to impress anybody, where distractions are at a minimum, where we can give our undivided attention to God. Relational prayer can include many brief talks with God during the hustle and bustle of a day, but it must also include special times each day that we set aside for nothing but conversation with our heavenly Father.
If you belong to Jesus, God loves to be with you and hear your prayers. When you praise him and say you love him, God delights in your praise. When you thank God for something he has done for you, God is happy that you enjoy his gifts, and he is already planning even more blessings for you. When you apologize to God and ask forgiveness for bad things you’ve done that offend and grieve him, God is full of joy at your repentance and your desire to be close to him again. When you ask God to help people you know, God is glad that you care enough about others to bring their needs to the Lord. And when you pray about your own challenges and needs, God is glad that you count on him. He will give what you ask, unless in his wisdom he gives you something even better and more lasting than what you asked for. When you know God through regular, relational prayer, God delights in you and in your prayers, and he promises, “I will rejoice in doing them good… with all my heart and with all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).
Father, thank you for calling us into a relationship with you and for delighting in the prayers of your people. Keep drawing us closer to you by your Holy Spirit within us. Help us to pray more and more in tune with your heart of love and to experience the wonder of relational prayer, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.