Not long ago, the father of my friend passed away. The family had prayed for his salvation for years. At the end, he was physically unable to respond, leaving his family uncertain whether he had ever received the gospel.
Another friend prayed for his father, a Holocaust survivor, to also come to faith. He continued to pray over the years, and his father gradually became more open, eventually accepting Yeshua as his Messiah.
In both cases, years were spent in prayer, and yet the outcome was different. We may wonder about our own prayers. Do they matter? Are we praying according to God's will? Will it make a difference if we spend twice as much time praying? Are we praying with the right measure of faith? One professor summed up the confusion we sometimes experience in this way:
Expert advice on prayer abounds. At the Christian university where I teach, chapel speakers promote everything from praying directly from Scripture to "just being quiet and listening." Orthodox speakers recommend the "Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, a sinner." Other speakers say prayer is simply a conversation with God, and I think, Simply?! Just a regular old conversation with someone I can't see, hear, or touch, and whose voice is so tricky to sort from others', especially from the voices of my own hopes and fears?1
The fact is that there is mystery surrounding prayer. We might not always understand the nature of prayer or what God is doing behind the scenes. Yet prayer is central in the life of a believer, and I want to offer some words to orient us and encourage us as we come before the living God.
Prayer: Our Biblical Heritage
The Tanach is rich with prayer. Page after page we encounter men and women who diligently sought God in prayer. The patriarchs experienced powerful two-way communication with God. Moses spoke with God face-to-face; and he himself became God's answer to Israel's prayers for a redeemer. Judges, kings and prophets sought the Lord in prayer and saw him intervene in history to heal, provide, lead, speak and save.
The psalms are a particularly rich resource, a kind of "field guide" for understanding prayer. Martin Luther observed, "The Christian can learn to pray in the Psalter, for here he can hear how the saints talk with God."2 When I was traveling through parts of India frequented by Israelis, I met several people who read the psalms every day. It's not hard to see why. The psalms provide a glimpse into authentic prayer. Sometimes they express anger towards God, or ask for retribution on enemies ("Rise up, O Lord, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword"—Psalm 17:13). At other times they testify of God's righteousness and love ("Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!"—Psalm 66:20). There are psalms that offer prayers of confession (Psalm 51:1-2), or that ask for God's guidance (Psalm 86:11) and protection (Psalm 60:5). There is even a psalm for unanswered prayer (Psalm 13:1-6).
The psalms focus our thoughts and help us process our interactions with God. They give direction in times of uncertainty and are a source of hope when we are discouraged. They help us relate to God about the things he finds important. And because the psalms contain so much about God's attributes, they can provide a platform for speaking with our people about who God is.
There are many other examples of prayer in the Tanach. Moses interceded for the people of Israel when they turned away from the Lord (Exodus 32:11-13). Elijah called on the name of the Lord while the prophets of Baal prayed to their own god (1 Kings 18:1-46). His offering was taken up in fire, God's people fell to their knees in worship, and God was able to display his power.
In the New Testament, the earliest followers of Jesus relied on prayer to lift one another up through their tribulations. Paul was a living example of this. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, he wrote that we are to "pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Messiah Yeshua." In addition to encouraging his communities of believers to pray, Paul faithfully lifted them up in prayer.
The Power of Prayer
Prayer has the power to change things. Prayer movements have long been a catalyst for world change. The Moravians, one of the earliest Protestant missionary movements, experienced powerful revival after devoting themselves to 100 years of continuous prayer.3 Philip Milledoler and a handful of Jewish believers met for prayer in 1813, interceding for the salvation of Jewish people. By 1816, they had established the first missionary society to the Jewish people in the United States.4 Today, the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and similar movements continue to mobilize people around the world to pray.5
Another area where the power of prayer is shown is in healing. An Anglican professor of mine told of his experience in Africa where, as a white traveler, he was mistaken for a doctor. A paralyzed man had been brought before him and, not being a physician, he settled on praying for the man. To his surprise, he was immediately healed. The professor was then sought out by many others in need of healing and was able to share the gospel with them. He remarked that not much in his Anglican background had prepared him for that experience!
Yet not everyone who prays for healing receives it (not even Paul—see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). That may be the part of the mystery of prayer; someone once said that God always answers prayer, but his answer can be "Yes," "No," or "Maybe"!
Prayer also has the power to change us. Through prayer, Scripture is opened to us, we find forgiveness and we are drawn into communion with the Lord. Writer Tim Stafford has said, "We do not pray to tell God what he does not know, nor to remind him of the things he has forgotten. He already cares for the things we pray about . . . He has simply been waiting for us to care about them with him.6 Prayer helps us get in step with where God is going.
The Ingredients of Effective Prayer
"Pray with kavannah—then your prayers will matter!" This is what I was taught in yeshiva. Kavannah—Hebrew for intent or heartfelt meaning—was a key ingredient for an effective prayer life. Students would set their alarm clocks for 3 or 4 a.m. to recite slichot, prayers for forgiveness, in preparation for the High Holidays. There was an unspoken assumption that the "sacrifice" of rising early put a person in a state of kavannah.
Adherents of other religions have their own emphases when it comes to prayer. Muslims pray five times a day, bowing their heads to the floor in an act of humility. For Buddhists, quantity of prayer is important: some will spin prayers to heaven on special Hindi-inscribed prayer wheels, while others will download these prayers to their hard-drives so that they spin out 5,400 prayers per minute!7
In the right context, kavannah is important for believers in Yeshua, too. Of course, we would also add aspects such as praying in faith, with thankfulness, in the name of Jesus, and so on. At bottom, effective prayer is less about what one says or how often one prays than it is a posture toward God that seeks his will and his glory.
The "ACTS" model of prayer has proven helpful for many people. ACTS is an acronym for a way to approach God in our prayers. Prayer begins with adoration of God, reminding us of God's power, love, and care as we thank him for who he is and what he can do in our lives. Next comes confession which allows us to "clear our slate" with the Lord and strengthen our relationship with him. This is where we ask for forgiveness and the ability to forgive others. Thanksgiving follows, prompting us to realize the ways in which God has already blessed us. Last is supplication,where we come before the Lord with our needs and desires.8
Prayer and Our People
From the inarticulate cries of Israel in Egypt (Exodus 2:23) to the evolved Jewish liturgy of the Kol Nidre service, Jewish people have prayed as a way of relating to God and to their fellow Jews. These prayers may concern anything from the blessing of a newborn to the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, and they can be uttered in the synagogue or through Twittering prayers to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Traditional Jews still pray three times a day. Prayer creates continuity among the Jewish people no matter what country or century they live in.
Many Jewish people have active prayer lives. I have met some who claimed to spend hours seeking God each day. There are spiritual renewal movements in Judaism that emphasize prayer and meditation. Some pray through the psalms (tehillim) as a way of earning merit and growing closer to God.
How should we relate to these phenomena? Does God hear the prayers of Jewish people who do not believe in Yeshua? In 1980, Bailey Smith, then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention, made serious waves when he said, "God Almighty doesn't hear the prayer of a Jew."9 That kind of statement is not only difficult to substantiate, but it can alienate our audience from real interaction and discussion. Who are we to say that God cannot hear the prayer of a non-believer who is truly seeking him? God's answer to their prayer might be a stepping-stone on their way to faith. We should be careful about drawing unwarranted conclusions. Perhaps on some level we can learn from the kind of dedication many Jewish people show in praying to God.
As Jewish believers, we have a special obligation to pray for Israel. The Bible teaches us to remember Jerusalem in our prayers (Psalm 122:6). We naturally have a vested interest in our people coming to know Messiah. And non-Jewish believers will look to us for cues on how to best pray for Jewish people.
Finally, prayer and proclamation have long been closely associated in the Hebrew Bible. The Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is a declaration of who God is and a proclamation of our allegiance to him. The psalms frequently begin with reflections on the attributes of God before moving toward proclaiming him to others: "It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night" (Psalm 92:1-2; see also Psalm 9:11). This should encourage us to labor in prayer for unbelieving family and friends. We may even be an answer to our own prayer for our unbelieving family, as God uses us to talk of his great love for them.
Our Biblical Heritage Again
Ultimately, we have the example of Yeshua himself. Yeshua demonstrated his complete dependence upon the Father. His ministry literally began and ended with prayer: at his baptism, he was anointed with the Holy Spirit as he prayed (Luke 3:21), while of the seven statements he made from the cross, three were prayers (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23:34, 46).
Jesus instructed us to ask "our Father in heaven." He modeled many kinds of prayer, communing with the Father, making requests in his time of need, interceding on behalf of his disciples and even his enemies. He faithfully prayed for the needs of those around him. Demons were cast out and multitudes were healed. Some of his prayers, such as for unity among his followers, were not immediately answered. But this never stopped Yeshua from carrying out the will of his Father. In fact, he himself was an answer to prayer and the vehicle God used to pour out his power upon those in need. And perhaps part of the mystery of prayer is that we become the ultimate answer to some of Yeshua's prayers.
So do our prayers make any difference? I know they do, and that's a good reason to keep on praying. Sometimes our prayers will be immediately answered; at other times we will wait for a response with no discernable answer. Along the way, we will we grow closer to our Father in heaven, who "gives good gifts to those who ask him" (Matthew 7:11).
2. As quoted by Ronald Barclay Allen, Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980), p. 24.
6. Quoted in Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Zondervan, 2006), p. 58. Stafford is the author of Knowing the Face of God.