Prayer is many different things to different people. It varies from one religion to another: the compulsory “five times a day” for the Muslim (with set times and prescribed actions), the prayer wheel of the Buddhist, and so on. But for Christians there is no set prescription or format (although this hasn’t stopped some churches from inventing one). Jesus does give us a couple of warnings: don’t use public prayer as a means of ‘showing off’ to other people, and don’t copy non-Christian practices. Why not? Because “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (verse 8) The ‘effectiveness’ of a prayer is not measured by its verbosity or by its eloquence; what matters is a relationship with the God we are praying to. Our prayers should be simple and direct (like the Lord’s prayer, which Jesus gives as an example).
I Kings 18:22-39
As good and bad examples of prayer, contrast Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Baal (a false god) had to be bullied (by hours of frantic praying), blackmailed (by self-injury) or bribed (by increasingly large sacrifices) into doing what his worshippers wanted. Elijah, on the other hand, already knew what God wanted (I Kings 18:1). All he had to do was carry out God’s instructions and make a brief and respectful request – and he received an instant answer.
Prayer does not exist in a vacuum, divorced from the rest of one’s life. Genuine prayer arises out of a relationship with God: from our point of view, it presupposes an attitude of reverence (verse 16), worship (verse 17), and a desire to obey Him (verse 18). Such a person can have absolute confidence that God will answer his prayers (I John 3:21,22). (Of course, God hears all prayers from all people; but if we are not ‘in tune’ with Him, it is unlikely that we shall get the answers we hope for)
One of the blessings of the age to come is the ‘immediacy’ of God’s presence: we shall all speak with Him ‘face to face’. And already Christians have glimpses of this sometimes, with ‘immediate’ (or even sooner!) answers to our prayers. This should come as no surprise: after all, it is not that God is unconcerned about our needs or unaware of them until we inform Him. And because He loves us, He may well already be taking steps to provide us with what we need.
It is because unbelievers have no caring heavenly Father to trust in that they are obsessed with – and worry about – the things of this world. All their time and energy is directed towards feeding, clothing, decorating, pampering and entertaining their bodies – for they have nothing else to live for. Christians should have a more ‘laid-back’ attitude to life (some of us find this easier to achieve than others!) because we know that God is looking after us.
We have a God who loves us, to whom we have access at all times. So we have no excuse for not taking all our needs and problems to Him as soon as they arise. Through prayer we can release ourselves from anxiety by expressing our trust in our loving heavenly Father.