Prayer: Regimen or Relationship?

Two thoughts come to mind when you write about prayer.  The first is, "Who am I to talk about prayer?" I prayed for Baylor to win last week and watched them get blown out.  Apparently, my prayers don’t work well.  The second is, "Great, I get to be the hypocrite that makes everyone feel guilty because they don’t pray enough." Most of us feel both of those things on the inside, don’t we? I don’t pray enough and when someone tells me that I should pray more, or when I hear stories of the prayer regimens of great saints of old who spent 8 hours in concentrated prayer, 4 times a day, I feel guilty.  And for a while, that guilt helps me embrace a new routine and regimen (as if that’s my problem).  But you know as well as I do that guilt has a shelf life and as soon as it leaves, my newfound discipline goes right along with it.  Then failing at my regimen or routine leads me to shame because I don’t pray enough-- to the point where I cringe when I know someone’s going to talk about prayer.  It causes us to lose heart and become even less prayerful than we were before.

What’s worse is that you and I don’t live in a vacuum.  Our shallow, short-lived, guilt-motivated theology of prayer is not just something that affects us, but is often seen and embraced among those with whom we have influence.  If you’re not a praying person, I guarantee that the people that follow you aren’t praying people (unless you’re such a tyrant that they are constantly praying for deliverance-- either way you understand what I’m saying.

Fortunately, we’re not the only ones to struggle with prayer like this. Luke 18, the parable of the persistent widow was written for people like you and me.  But before guilt jumps on your back, look at the first verse.  This is a story meant to encourage more prayer while discouraging the things (like guilt, shame, and inefficiency) that would discourage us from prayer.  Verse 1 reads, "And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart."  This text is written for us… for you and I who don’t pray enough and feel like our prayers don’t work.  Historically, I’ve hated this passage because I thought it prescribed a regimen and routine, but it’s not written for that.  The encouragement to pray more doesn’t come from embracing a regimen, but embracing a relationship.

"In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God or respected man."  Basically, it starts by describing a self centered, powerful, individualistic judge filled with apathy.  It goes on to introduce us to another character,  a widow-- someone with no family, no one to help her, no family, no place to go for help; someone in desperate need of a powerful person with compassion for her; and she’s forced to go to a stranger. What’s being highlighted in this story is the relationship between the judge and the widow.  Based on the character descriptions that are present we see that these people couldn’t be further apart.  However, she has a regimen of persistence that overcomes the apathy of the judge.  Apathy, even the most hardened, has a limit.

That is a great lesson. However, this story is not about a regimen.  It’s a contrast of the relationships between both characters.  God is not the judge in this story and you are not the widow.  God is not apathetic to our needs. God is the  God of the first three verses of the Bible.  Hovering over a formless, void, chaotic world and creating beauty out of chaos (which He does throughout the rest of Scripture).  There is not an ounce of apathy in Him.  Moreover, His concern for our problems predates our awareness of our problems.  Look at verses 6 and 7: "Hear what the unrighteous judge says.  And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them?"  His elect—people chosen by God before He spoke the beauty out of the chaos in the world.  Chosen, brought near, once orphans and widows with no hope but made family though what Jesus has done for us.  And moreover, He’s promised that no one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.  While the judge and widow couldn’t be farther apart, God and His elect couldn’t be closer together.

It was the widow’s idea to make the judge aware of the problem. She had to work over time to convince him it was a good idea to act on her behalf, while God initiates relationship with us and invites us to approach Him.  The widow could only access the judge at certain times of the day, but we have the freedom to cry out to God at all times of the day (even right now as you read this on your cell phone). The judge was perturbed by her insistent pleadings, but God is pleased with ours.

This story is meant to help us to see that if we believe we are truly His children, then why wouldn’t we pray?  Why wouldn’t He be the first option?  Prayer that flows out of our identity takes place when we embrace a relationship, not a regimen.  Regimens and strategies leave us guilt-ridden when we fail, but a relationship reminds us of God’s grace towards us when we fail to perform as we should.  As long as we try to improve our prayer life by adopting a new regimen, we’re destined for failure.  True progress in prayer only comes as we embrace the relationship of a loving Father with His kids.

To that end, the goal is really not to prescribe another regimen.  One helpful way that I’ve tried to put this truth into practice is by making a habit of being persistent and patient in my prayers.  Start praying for things that may take God 20 years to accomplish.  That way we’re constantly reminded of the fact that we’re in a long-term relationship with Jesus.

I spent some time on sabbatical at a church that has gathered every Sunday night for the past 20 years, praying that God would make Himself real to their surrounding neighbors.  There was a funeral of an older woman who this church cared for over 20 years.  The funeral was filled with people who weren’t Christians from the neighborhood surrounding the church—people who haven’t stepped foot in a church for over 20 years.  They recognized and praised the church for their care while being surprised that this this was the first time in 20 years they saw her biological family.  As they heard about God’s love for us in Jesus, it was made tangible to them during that funeral.  God answered the countless prayers for of this church.  This answer to prayer was 20 years in the making.  Somehow, when God answered it, it seemed like it was all worth it.  Deep down inside, I left from that time longing for an experience like that.  Seeing the grace of God on that day has been one of the greatest motivators to begin a journey of persistent and patient prayer.

Right now is as good a time as any to take a break from whatever has a monopoly on your time, reflect on the fact that God is inviting you to speak to Him, and pray.