There was no mistaking the bold and colorful numerals, 7-7-7, that filled the entire window space of this shop front in downtown Sofia, strategically situated within one block of a busy intersection. Worship centers at the intersection’s four corners embraced the store and its 7-7-7 window: a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, a Russian Orthodox church, and a Roman Catholic church. What a striking missionary strategy! I thought, until friends advised that the numerals emblazoned on that window were unrelated to any international Adventist prayer initiative. Instead, they only prescribed a gambling formula of success to patrons at this casino!
This casino’s use of my church’s prayer formula provoked me to wonder about the efficacy of formulas for prayer. I thought again, more fundamentally, on the whole issue of the nature and purpose of prayer. I wondered, for example, if the number and dimensions of our prayers actually gives them increased efficacy? As if much speaking manipulates God. I wondered too, about God doing, because we pray, what we can actually do for ourselves? What, I ask myself, is the legitimate place of petition? If God already knows our needs, why ask? Answers to these questions answer the frequent and fundamental question: What is the virtue of prayer? This article raises the question from three not-unfamiliar perspectives. First, though, comes a warning.
As a boy, Norman Vincent Peale once found a large black cigar. He slipped into an alley and lit up. It didn’t taste good, but it made him feel grown-up. Then Norman saw his father approaching. Quickly he put the cigar behind his back and tried to be casual. Desperate to divert his father’s attention, Norman pointed to a billboard advertising the circus. “Can I go, Dad? Please, let’s go when it comes to town.”
His father replied, “Son, never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience.”
If we are unwilling to curb our selfish habits, then we may quite truthfully say “It does no good to pray.” Our prayers are useless because our choices limit God’s freedom. We have refused to fulfill the first condition of prayer, namely, a willingness to align with God’s laws. Likewise, the reception of the Holy Spirit requires that we “remove every obstacle,”1 and work “in accordance with [our] prayers.”2 The God to whom we pray desires that we, without reservation or conditions on our part, “bring [our] lives into harmony with [our] petitions, that [we] may receive the blessings for which [we] pray.”3
Sincere prayer implies an act of the will, a desire for growth, a willingness to sacrifice on our part; for prayer is not passive, but is a very active collaboration between us and God. If the will is inoperative, our prayers are merely lists of things we would like God to give to us without any real relationship, without effort on our part, or any willingness to cooperate. Prayer is dynamic, but only when we cooperate with God through surrender. In dealing with others it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it, but with God that is impossible. As Augustine is purported to have said: “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.” Here now are threequeries that probe our issue—namely, the purpose of prayer.
1 Inasmuch as the will of God will always be done, what difference does it make whether we pray?
This is somewhat like saying: “My friend will either get better or worse; what good will it do to send for a doctor and give him/her medicine?” In the physical order medical power takes into account the physical factors within a sick body; in the spiritual order God’s will makes allowance for our desire to do better. It is true that in answering a prayer, God will not do what He does not will, merely because we asked Him. But God will do that which without our prayer He would not do.
By way of illustration, the sun may not shine through a dirty window, but the sun will shine through the window if it is clean. It is a conditional universe in which we live, where we may bring about an effect by proceeding along the road of its cause. Students know by studying; matches ignite by being struck. In the spiritual order we have the words of Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). We must prepare for God’s help by asking, seeking, and knocking.
“It is . . . God’s plan to grant us,” writes Ellen White, “in answer to the prayer of faith, that which He would not bestow did we not thus ask.”4 Millions of favors are hanging from silken cords. Prayer is the sword that cuts them. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Rev. 3:20).
This text reverses the order that many people think to be the law of prayer. They assume that when we pray, we ring God’s doorbell and ask for a favor. Actually, it is He who rings our bell: “I stand at the door and knock.” God could do much more for any of us if our wills were more conformable—weakness is always on the receiving end. Radio broadcasts become available only when a listener tunes in to them.
2 If the essence of prayer is not to make God give us something, then is there a legitimate place for petition?
God has two kinds of gifts: first, there are those which He sends us whether we pray for them or not; and the second kind are those that are given on condition that we pray. The first gifts resemble those things that a child receives in a family—food, clothing, shelter, care, and watchfulness. These gifts come to every child, whether the child asks for them or not.
But there are other gifts, which are conditioned on the desire of the child. A parent may be eager to have their child go to college. But by refusal to study, or by delinquency, the child may make the gift impossible. Concerning the first kind of gifts, Jesus referred to them when He said that God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). He spoke of the second kind of gifts when He said, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7).
In families in which the economic is a primary goal and in which prayers are still said, they may very likely resemble that of the prodigal: “Give me . . .” In families in which Providence is primary, prayer is more likely to be that of the converted prodigal, who says to their father: “Make me . . .” In proportion as we pray to be more faithful and loving children of God, there will be a corresponding bestowal of those gifts that a heavenly Father can give to His children whom He loved so much that He died for them.
The person who thinks only of themselves says only prayers of petition; one who thinks of their neighbor says prayers of intercession; one who thinks of loving and serving God says prayers of abandonment to God’s will. The price of this prayer is too high for most people, for it demands the displacement of self. Many want God to do their will; they bring their completed plans and ask Him to rubber-stamp them without a change. The petition of “Our Father” is changed by them to read: “My will be done on earth.” It is very difficult for God to give Himself to those who are interested only in the temporal. The person who refuses to be brought to the divine level is like an egg kept forever in a place too cool for incubation, so that it is never called upon to live a life outside of the shell of its own incomplete development. Every “I” is still an embryo of what that person is meant to be.
3 If God already knows our needs, why then inform Him about those needs?
Jesus says, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need” all these things (Matt. 6:32). The purpose of prayer is to give God the opportunity to bestow the gifts He will give us when we are ready to accept them. It is not the eye that makes the light of the sun surround us; it is not the lung that makes the air envelop us. The light of the sun is there if we do not close our eyes to it, and the air is there for our lungs if we do not hold our breath. God’s blessings are here—if we do not rebel against His will to give. As Richard C. Trench affirmed: “Prayer [is not] an overcoming of God’s reluctance, . . . it is, in fact, a laying hold of His highest willingness.”5
If God sometimes seems slow to answer our petitions, there are several possible reasons.
One is that the delay is for the purpose of deepening our love and increasing our faith. The other is that God is urging us. God may defer for some time the granting of His gifts, that we might ardently pursue, not the gift, but the Giver. Or we may be asking Him for something He wants us to learn we do not need.
Jacob once asked God to bring him home safely, promising that he would give Him 10 percent of his income in thanksgiving. But after wrestling with the angel, he merely said, in the joy of communion with God: “I have seen God face to face” (see Gen. 32:30). The greatest gift of God is not things, but God Himself. Growing love asks less and less, seeking only to give and give.
God does not always give us what we want, but He always gives us what we need. Often this is a gift so great and generous that we should never have asked for it because, until it came, we did not know of it. Perhaps, after all, “we shall see,” writes Ellen White, “that our seemingly unanswered prayers and disappointed hopes have been among our greatest blessings.”6
Notwithstanding the caution that “we are not to know the definite time either for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit or the coming of Christ,”7 what can be said of a numeric and programmatic formula for the full reception of the Holy Spirit?
Let DeWitt Osgood answer: “It is not the quantity of our prayers that Heaven respects; nor our eloquence, no matter how flowery our language; not our arguments, no matter how logically we present our requests; nor the time we spend in them. Rather it is our yearning, our heart cry for cleansing, and the sincerity which prompts our prayer that Heaven recognizes. God will never disappoint the soul that in sincerity and faith asks for the Holy Spirit.”8 n