Many of the cultured despisers of religion in our day wonder, why is there all this concern about prayer? After all, is belief in God not merely wish fulfillment at best and a mild dementia at worst? I suppose if God did not exist we would have to come up with an explanation for the prevalence of religious faith. But such psychological charges beg the question of whether there is a God or not.
Is there evidence that God exists? Contrary to the new atheists (Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins), there is overwhelming evidence of His existence. There is no space to rehearse that evidence here. But just suppose, for the sake of argument, there is such a case for the existence of a God who desires a personal relationship with us, then what place would prayer have in that worldview?
C.S. Lewis puts the options starkly. He says that if Christianity is false it “is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Note that faith in Christ, if true, is of infinite importance. In such a faith, what would be the center, the most important thing about it? In the history of the church, various contenders emerge: faith, thanksgiving, repentance, faithfulness, freedom and love. A case could be made for each one of these. Yet at the root, all these involve a responsiveness to God, invocation, calling on His name. The Lord’s Prayer is an example of this. It is rightly central in many worship services.
This prayer begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Although it might seem bland and ordinary to us today, when it originated it was radical and offensive. In Jesus’ time, the name for God in Hebrew, Yahweh, was not written with the vowels present because it was so holy that it could not be pronounced. Transliterated, it was YHWH — only consonants. It (the four letters) is called the “Tetragrammaton.” Even today, many Jews, when they write about God, write it as G-d, again because He is so transcendent and holy that He should not be approached in an intimate and personal manner.
By contrast, Jesus, in addressing God as “Father” in prayer, did something unique and controversial in his day. Joachim Jeremias argues that there is no parallel to anyone addressing God as Father in prayer before, during or after Jesus’ time until A.D. 974 in Italy.
Jesus repeatedly addresses God as “Father” and encourages us to do the same. This promise of an intimate relationship with a loving Father encourages us to bring not just occasional things or major concerns, but everything to Him. Jesus tells us to “Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks it shall be opened.”
Just as earthly fathers give their children good things to eat and not harmful things, so will God give good things to those who ask. If we ask him for a loaf, he won’t give us a stone. If we ask him for an egg, he won’t give us a scorpion (Luke 11:11-12). In fact, Jesus promises in an unqualified fashion, “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13). With that kind of promise, no wonder believers are so intent on prayer.
J.C. Ryle, an Anglican bishop from the 19th century (1816-1900), wrote a classic chapter on “Prayer” in his book “Practical Religion” that may be the best summary of the importance of prayer ever written. Ryle gives numerous examples of the power of prayer in Scripture:
Nothing seems too great, too hard, or too difficult for prayer to do. It has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It has won victories over fire, air, earth and water. Prayer opened the Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven. Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on Elijah’s sacrifice. Prayer turned the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib. Well, might Mary, Queen of Scots say, “I fear John Knox’s prayers more than an army of 10,000 men.” Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead. So long as Abraham asked mercy for Sodom, the Lord went on giving. He never ceased to give till Abraham ceased to pray.
When you see these examples, it is no surprise that believers pray. In fact, there are many throughout history who are models of prayer. It is said that John Wesley (founder of Methodism) would regularly pray four hours a day.
Martin Luther prayed an hour a day, and on particularly busy days prayed two hours because he needed closeness with God even more. However, you cannot count the value of prayer merely by the time spent. If you just measure prayer by a stopwatch, you miss the main point — intimacy with God.
That’s why there is such a stress on the danger of neglecting prayer. Jesus tells his disciples to watch and pray lest they succumb to the weakness of the flesh (Matthew 26:41). The Apostle Paul warns us to beware when we think we are standing lest we fall (I Corinthians 10:12). Many people fall in private before they fall in public. There is a tendency for prayer to drive out sin or sin to drive out prayer. Ryle writes:
Bibles read without prayer, sermons heard without prayer, marriages contracted without prayer, journeys undertaken without prayer, residences chosen without prayer, friendships formed without prayer, the daily act of prayer itself hurried over or gone through without heart — these are the kinds of downward steps by which many a Christian descends to a condition of spiritual palsy or reaches the point where God allows him to have a tremendous fall.
Thus, believers stress the importance of prayer in all kinds of circumstances. This is not merely a duty, though, but ought to be a matter of desire. When believers throughout the ages have experienced an encounter with God, they find it not only unforgettable but something that increases their desire to pray.
On New Year’s Eve in 1740, John Wesley and a number of others were praying late into the night, and he said that God came down in a special, powerful way and they were amazed. They began to sing the “Te Deum,” a hymn of praise, to God.
I had a similar experience when I was part of a Young Life leadership house. We had various leaders for this high school ministry living together. Almost every night, we would read Scripture together and pray before going to bed. One night, we read Acts Chapter 2 (about Pentecost) and got down on our knees to pray. All I can say is that God came down and rested on us from 11:30 p.m. till 4 a.m. The presence and power of God was so strong that we didn’t want to move — just bask in His presence. I have had many other touches of God’s presence but never so much or so long. Each of the people present that night went on to extensive ministries around the world.
The experience and power of prayer are part of the evidence for the reality of God’s existence. You might expect arguments from reason, history, ethics and correspondence to aspirations in personal and public life. But one empirical way to test the truth of faith in Jesus is through the experience of prayer. Many have come to faith as a result of an encounter with God. Ask for the Holy Spirit’s presence, only watch out, you might get it.
C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun is risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” It is the way faith comprehensively fits with reality in thought, practice and experience that has compelled so many believers to pray.
• The Rev. Dr. Art Lindsley is vice president of Theological Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, where he oversees the development of a theology that integrates faith, work and economics. Formerly president and senior fellow at the C.S. Lewis Institute, he is an editor and contributing author for the recently released book, “For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.”