In the Book of Hebrews (10:19-23) we’re reminded that Jesus opened the way for us to draw near to God. Through faith in Christ we have access to an intimate relationship with the Almighty. Think for a moment what this means. The God who created the universe and everything within it, including you, invites us through Jesus to draw near to him in love. What’s more, he longs for us to share our burdens, joys, and desires with him in prayer.
Two verses have recently reminded me of our need for prayer. Colossians 4:2 (ESV) states, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” And Romans 12:12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
The words “continue steadfastly” and “be constant” as they appear above are actually translations of a Greek word. The word is proskartereō. This word is a combination of the preface “pros” indicating to go forward, and “kartereō” meaning to be strong in, to be steadfast, or to endure.
Why would we need encouragement to be strong, or to endure, and to press on in prayer? I suspect it’s because our natural tendency is to try to do things on our own. Another factor may be that we’re not really convinced that God cares about the details of our lives, or that he has the power to make a difference.
As I was thinking about prayer this morning, it seems to me that there are at least three ways that people pray. We do so either as a ritual, as a routine, or within a relationship.
Ritual is an interesting word. I vividly recall a moment that took place many years ago. It happened during one of my undergraduate anthropology courses. One of the students commented that his father goes through the “ritual of shaving every morning.” The Professor corrected him by saying, “You mean the routine of shaving. After all, ritual is symbolic, whereas routine is utilitarian.”
Given this, it seems to me that ritual prayer is symbolic of the fact that we know there’s a God, and we recite prayers in the hopes that he will hear us. Reciting written or memorized prayers can be meaningful to the degree that they represent what’s in one’s heart. They can also be devoid of meaning if they’re simply words we say. In the worst case, ritual prayer can almost become something like incantations, or special phrases to which we have ascribed magical power. The focus can become the words themselves or the act of saying them. Jesus may have had this in mind when he said in Mark 12:38-40, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes… and for a pretense make long prayers.” Perhaps one reason we’re encouraged to be strong, to endure, and to press on in prayer is so that it will not become ritualistic.
Routine prayer can almost be as devoid in meaning as overly ritualistic prayer. As noted by my anthropology Professor, routine is utilitarian. It’s all about getting something that needs doing out of the way. We know Christ followers are supposed to pray, so we dutifully get up and have our quiet time. Checking that task off, we go on with our day.
Prayer may also become utilitarian when it’s supposed to take place at certain times. If we’re Christ followers, we better open and close any meeting with prayer. Again, doing so can be meaningful, and yet again it can simply become routine and mean little else than that we’re checking off something that we’re expected to do.
I suspect that neither overly ritualistic nor dutiful routine prayer do very much to move the heart of God.
By contrast, those who trust in Jesus are invited into his very presence. We’re encouraged to draw near and to dwell with him in an intimate relationship. We see this in John 14:23 when Jesus says:
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
In a similar way, Jesus invites us to draw near and enter his very presence. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Both of these verses set the context for the privilege of relational prayer. We’re likely encouraged in the New Testament to be strong, to endure, and to persevere in prayer because everything around us works in harmony with our fallen human nature in seeking to draw us away from living in God’s presence. It’s when we enter into that intimate space with God that we can enjoy relational prayer. In this place ritual and routine fade away as we pour out our hearts to God, listen to the inner promptings of his Spirit, and simply sit quietly in the presence of the King who loves us.
In this place our fears melt. We know that God cares, and we know that he has the power to change our lives and the lives of those whom we most dearly love. The same God who raised the dead and who stopped the sun in the sky knows the intimate details of our lives. This is where we enjoy the privilege of relational prayer. No, not everything we ask for in prayer is granted, yet we know with certainty that God listens to the cry of our hearts, and we know with assurance that he will work in ways that are best for us and those we love.
No matter if times are good and all seems well, or if everything around us seems to be falling apart, let’s listen to the encouragement of Scripture. Let’s be steadfast and constant in entering into the presence of God and enjoying a rich prayer life that’s only available to those who know and trust Jesus. And let’s pray that those we love, and many besides, will also discover the awesome privilege of relational prayer in the presence of God.