- - Sunday, November 29, 2015

The most famous prayer in the Bible is the one we call the Lord’s Prayer. The people Jesus chose to be his closest friends and followers asked him how they could pray like him — with power. They had grown up in a time with plenty of ritualistic, public prayer but few visible results. As they had followed Jesus, however, they had seen a man who prayed in private and was a conduit for miracles of healing and transformation.

Many elements of the prayer would have sounded very familiar to Jesus’ disciples: the worship of God as their heavenly father, the confession of errors and the supplication for daily needs. But some parts of Jesus’ prayer were unique. Instead of asking God to bless their own plans, Jesus asked God to bring the values and realities of his kingdom into their broken world. Jesus also asked God to accomplish his purposes and allow them the privilege of joining his work.

The Lord’s Prayer shows us that when we communicate with God, it’s not primarily to “change his mind” about something but to allow him to change us. As we seek God in habitual, private prayer, allowing our focus to dwell on his leadership and will, we find our hearts and wills increasingly aligned with his. When we ask God to change our spouse or child, he makes us better partners and parents. When we pray for our enemies, we develop hearts of forgiveness and empathy. When we pray for the struggling, he inspires us to serve.

In my years serving as the head of Prison Fellowship, the organization Chuck Colson founded in 1976, I have witnessed the transformative power of this kind of prayer in the lives of men and women behind bars. When prisoners really begin to pray, asking God’s kingdom to invade their prison cells and turning away from the thoughts and behaviors that landed them in prison, they change.

In one way prisoners have an advantage over you and me when it comes to prayer: Prayer takes time. That’s one thing you and I have in short supply, but incarcerated people have in abundance. Prison is infinitely boring. Every day is the same, and a prisoner’s thoughts can get stuck in an endless loop of self-loathing, “what-ifs” or resentment against the world. But by using that surplus time to pray like Jesus, incarcerated people can be delivered from their own selfishness and shame and enabled to focus on God’s fresh vision for their lives. To ask God’s “kingdom to come and will be done” for an incarcerated person means asking for forgiveness and offering restitution. It means to stop breaking the law and help catalyze a cycle of renewal and redemption.

Prison Fellowship helps teach many prisoners to build new lives based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. They are trained to be disciples. (This is nothing new, by the way; among Jesus’ closest friends and followers were former prostitutes, embezzlers and the like.) As part of their training, these men and women are encouraged to study and practice Jesus’ life of prayer.

Sure enough, praying like Jesus helps to change their thoughts, attitudes and behaviors. After they are released, men and women who have been involved in this intensive, faith-based programming are far less likely to commit a new crime.

When prisoners pray, learn to love their enemies and seek God’s will for their lives, the prisons and all who live and work in them are safer. Prisoners’ families see real change in their loved ones. The justice system is more effective. That all happens because prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us. It happens because God’s kingdom is a place of peace and hope, and he brings it through hearts and lives that seek to partner with him in making it happen. Prayer can change the world if the one who prays allows it to change him first.

When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he taught them to ask for their needs to be met so that they could be the agents of his restorative work to the ends of the earth. When we pray as he did, that God would give us all we need to serve and love, our families, our neighborhoods and our world are all restored. When those behind bars pray for their victims to be healed, their cellmates to be safe and the correctional officers to be blessed, their behaviors change to disrupt the prevailing prison culture and usher in God’s peace.

That’s the power of prayer.

Jim Liske is president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, founded by Chuck Colson, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families.

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