The black night slowly turns to shades of grey. A rooster crows somewhere in the dark, heralding the dawn. Standing at a morning market in Malaysia, the world begins to wake up around me. Soon, aromas of vegetables, meat, fruit, and incense fill the air.
Vendors scurry to prepare their produce in expectation of the day’s hustle and bustle. At a Taoist family altar, a Chinese woman prays and offers incense to her ancestors.
During the Tamil month of Thai, the star Pusam reaches its highest point in the night skies and announces the birth of the god Murugan. During the Thaipusam pilgrimage, Hindus take up their burdens and walk barefoot for many miles to a temple. Some pierce their cheeks and tongues with a skewer and carry pots of milk on their heads. Some carry small altars on their shoulders or on steel hooks through the skin of their back and chest. At the temple, pilgrims pray to their god and many fall into a trance, not bleeding despite being pierced with skewers and apparently feeling no pain, roaring as they are possessed by the god.
During the 7th month of their calendar, the Chinese celebrate the festival of the Hungry Ghost. Many believe that the gates of hell are opened during this time and that the spirits of the dead walk around in search of a body to enter. People are terrified and keep their doors and windows closed. They try to appease the ghosts by offering food on family altars, burning incense, and burning paper models (e.g., of mobile phones, cars, and clothes) for their ancestors to use in the spirit world. In front of some houses tables are served up with the most delicious food and drink, and empty chairs are put out for the ghosts to sit on. Firecrackers are fired all night long to keep the ghosts at bay. And the night echoes with the unceasing prayers for protection.
Around the world, Muslims gather five times a day in mosques for “Salah” or “Salat”—one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is a physical, mental, and spiritual act of worship that is observed every day at prescribed times while facing Mecca. In this ritual, the worshiper starts by standing, bowing, and prostrating themselves, and concludes by sitting on the ground. During each posture, the worshiper recites or reads certain verses, phrases and prayers. The word salah is commonly translated as “prayer”, but this could be confusing and might be better understood as meaning “bowing”, “homage”, or “worship”.
Prayer is universal. Every religion has some form of prayer. We pray because we cannot help it. The word “prayer” comes from the Old French preiere, which is derived from the Latin prex or precarius meaning “to beg, to entreat in a precarious situation”. Prayer is universal because it speaks to a basic human need — the need for fulfillment, the need for God. As Augustine said in his Confessions, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in God.”
Many of us grew up praying and thanking God for our mom and dad, for food and friends, for health and home; and asking things from God: gifts, good test scores, a life partner, a parking spot in rush-hour, obedient children, health and happiness.
I recently read a blog on prayer with the title: “Prayer is your petrol.” The author asks, among other things, “Do you gather enough petrol to get through the day?” and “I suspect that the lack of prayer is the biggest factor for the chaos in our lives.” The author makes some valuable points , but I am uncomfortable with the idea that prayer is seen as a “crutch” on which I lean to get through the day and a strategy to help me avoid chaos in my life.
Unfortunately, our prayers are often such and resemble a “shopping list” that leaves us disappointed if we do not get what we asked for. And sometimes God feels so far away that we might as well just be talking to ourselves in prayer. So, we are left with these questions: Why pray? Does prayer make a difference? And can we change God with our prayers?
The answer to this question is really simple. Because Jesus told us to.
Jesus taught his followers in the Sermon on the Mount not to pray like the hypocrites to be seen by others, nor to babble like pagans who think they will be heard because they use many words, but rather to pray like children to a father who knows what they need, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven …” (Mat 6:8-9).
Jesus taught us to pray in a radically new way: Nobody ever addressed God in the Old Testament as “Father.” Yet Jesus addressed God as ABBA, Father! Jesus wants us to come to the Father just as we are, like children climbing onto their mom or dad’s lap and talking to them. According to C.S. Lewis, the prayer that should precede every other prayer, should be like this, “May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.“ Therefore, the words of Ps 139 are so appropriate when we approach God. “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps 139: 23-24).
Prayer is an invitation to friendship with God, to be in relationship with him and—like Abraham and Moses—to walk with God. For the better you know someone, the less important it becomes to communicate information. My wife and I have been married for 25 years and we know each other so well that we can sense each other’s needs and feelings without expressing everything in words. Prayer works a bit like this. Prayer is friendship with God. And if we approach God as children — and as friends — then we can “worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
Then—as dependent children—we may look admiringly toward our Father “from whom all blessings flow” and be concerned with his state of affairs. Jesus teaches us as his followers to be concerned first of all with the Father’s name, his kingdom and his will, before we turn our attention to our daily needs, debts and the temptations we face.
Jesus came to restore the relationship between God and mankind. We are now his children. We are also heirs of the gospel. And through prayer God invites us to participate in (or have koinonia with) the gospel (Phil 1:5). But even as co-workers in God’s kingdom, most of us have already experienced that prayer is not an immediate fix or a guarantee that things will always happen the way we ask for it.
In the second part of this article, we’ll examine the questions: Does prayer make a difference? Can we change God with our prayers? Read part 2 here.